Bringing relief to Coca Cola and turning to nought the long agitation by residents of the Plachimada, a village in Kerala’s Palakkad district, the Plachimada Tribunal Bill has failed to win the President’s assent.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan on February 1 returned the Plachimada Coca Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill 2011 – which was unanimously passed by the Kerala Assembly five years ago – to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

“President is pleased to withhold assent,” the note from his office said. No reason was given for declining assent.

Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages, the Indian subsidiary of the multinational, has thus been spared of paying compensation to the nearly 1,000 Dalit and Adivasi families from Palakkad’s Perumatty and Pattancherry gram panchayats, the victims of the hazardous effects of its huge bottling plant at Plachimada.

A high-powered committee appointed by the Kerala government had determined in 2010 that residents in the vicinity of the Coca Cola plant had suffered damage valued at a minimum of ₹216 crore. The plant – which drew water from the nearby villages and dirtied wells, ponds and other water bodies – was shut down in late 2005 after a long agitation by the people of Plachimada that also drew global attention.

The committee had recommended setting up, through legislation, a tribunal to recover damages from Coca Cola and to administer the compensation to the victims. Had the Bill received Presidential assent, it would have made the tribunal a statutory reality.

Home Ministry opposition “It was the Home Ministry’s steadfast hostility to the Bill that has finally caused its rejection by the President,” S Faizi, who was the environmental expert in the high-powered committee, told BusinessLine . “At one time, the ministry had the audacity to ask the State government to withdraw the Bill”. He alleged that a section of bureaucrats and politicians had consistently tried to subvert the legislation in order to protect Coca Cola’s interests.

Sucking up groundwater The bottling plant, set up in 34 acres of land surrounded by paddy fields, had licences produce 5.61 lakh litres of soft drinks and other beverages daily. This meant drawing around 20 lakh litres of groundwater from six bore wells and two ponds. Soon, most local wells in the predominantly agricultural village went dry and the available water sources got contaminated.

Following protracted protest and the denial of new licences by government agencies, the plant was forced to shut down in late 2005.

Compensation, however, was still a long way off. It was VS Achuthanandan’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) government that set up the high-powered committee and also got the Bill passed. But ever since, it had been gathering dust at the Union Home Ministry. Activists now say Plachimada’s people might never receive the compensation.