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The Plachimada Struggle

The Plachimada Struggle

The Plachimada Struggle C R Bijoy The media as a coveted instrument in distortion offacts and misinformation while, at the same time, ensuring legitimacy by informing the public and commenting has been overlooked, particularly when This book emerged out of research funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and Swiss Development Cooperation through the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR), North-South and Development Study Group, and the Institute of Geography, University of Zurich. It attempts to address livelihood strategies and vulnerabilities of Plachimada in Palakkad district of Kerala in the context of the role of Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCBPL) in precipitating water insecurity, institutional failures in resolving this insecurity, collective strategies and action in coping with and mitigating the crisis, and the lessons that could be drawn from the ongoing experience. The Plachimada struggle, as it has come to be known, is perhaps one of the best battlefields that the researchers of the Centre for Development Studies could have chosen.

BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW november 15, 200835The Plachimada StruggleC R BijoyThis book emerged out of research funded by the Swiss National Sci-ence Foundation (SNSF) and Swiss Development Cooperation through the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR), North-South and Development Study Group, and the Institute of Geography, University of Zurich. It attempts to address livelihood strategies and vulnerabilities of Plachimada in Palakkad district of Kerala in the context of the role of Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCBPL) in precipitating water insecurity, institutional failures in resolving this in-security, collective strategies and action in copingwith and mitigating the crisis, andthelessons that could be drawn from the ongoingexperience. The Plachimada struggle, as it has come to be known, is perhapsoneof the best battlefields that the researchers of the Centre for Development Studies could have chosen. What emerged as a protest against pollution and depletion of groundwater by HCBPL progressed into a struggle over rights to groundwater and its governance, opening up the fault lines in relevant laws governing groundwater. However, the study restricts itself to an examination of theories of institutional evolution influenced by supply and demandforces,and cost of collective action by stakeholders within a sustainable livelihood framework. The study spans the period up to 2007. The problems of water depletion and pollution are reconstructed from a compi-lation of various observations and conclu-sions of official and non-official reports and studies. The official reports vehe-mently denied the allegation through weak arguments, but later confirmed the allega-tions against HCBPL and condemned them with the turn in the tide of the struggle and accumulation of evidence to the contrary. Predictably the studies sponsored by HCBPL were all too eager to absolve it of any crime or responsibility. The non-official reports to a large extent unearthed the reality. Though the authors acknowledge that pollution was the primary cause of water insecurity for the poor communities and the Adivasis who are in the forefront of the struggle now for more than half a decade, they prioritise the issue of depletion of groundwater, which can be contested on a number of grounds. It is pollution, the refusal of HCBPL to comply with various related orders and the defective applica-tion for renewal of licence to the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (not indicat-ing the source of cadmium and lead in the waste as required under hazardous waste management rules) that has led to the denial of licence to operate despite favour-able high court orders and consequent panchayat permission. The evidence points also to the possibility of precipitation of salts due to rapid extrac-tion of water byHCBPL, which has not received much attention, besides pollution due to waste from the plant. It is factually incorrect to say that “at present, large quantities of it are trucked out and dis-posed of in the farmlands all around as fertiliser” (p 25) as this practice was aban-doned in 2004 itself when the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee ordered HCBPL to stop dumping the sludge in open spaces, to retrieve the dumped waste and store in landfills constructed by the company.The link between the local trade unions, acting as agency for supplying contract labour to HCBPL and the initial active opposition of local political party units to the struggle has been ignored. The media has been applauded for its steadfast support to the struggle. The media plays a far more interventionist role in Kerala than in other states. An uncritical praise hides the divisive role that it played in initially belittling the issue and struggle to that of becoming a willing partner in promoting factional interest and politics. The media as a coveted instrument in distortion of facts and misinformation while, at the same time, ensuring legitimacy by informing the public and commenting has been overlooked, particularly when it has had an impact on the various actors in the Plachimada. Gaps in the NarrativeThe chapter on water insecurity and livelihood vulnerabilities is interpreted through agro-meteorological, economic (investments in developing water re-sources and choice of crops), technologi-cal and institutional factors. Depletion and deterioration of water and its proxi-mate relationship to reduced rainfall, depletion byHBCPL, increased extraction through bore wells and reduced water flow in the canals are also identified through a survey. But the intricate web of power and social relations that governs access to and control over water is obscured. The neglect of the tank-based agricultural and irrigation practices, the introduction of canal irrigation very early in the 19th century and their expan-sion, and the degradation of dense vege-tation in the last three decades or so do find mention. The changing institutional mechanisms governing the management, distribution and use of water with the changes in property rights over land and water, and thenow predominant technocratic vision of water resource development in deter-mining water insecurity and livelihood vulnerabilities, are not adequately outlined or critically examined, though they find anecdotal mention. So too are the social and ecological dimensions as causal factors. The perspective confines largely to issues of supply, access and use of water mostly captured in physical or volumetric terms. What is also not recognised is that HCBPL, besides being the largest land-owner in Plachimada, could be the big-gest and fastest groundwater guzzling “person” making the company stand out from the others. The chapter on “Livelihood Strategies and Institutional Linkages” describes the coping strategies of different sections amongst the affected. The narration of the agitations by the landless and the farmers as mitigation strategy is fraught Water Insecurity, Institutions and Livelihood Dynamics: A Study in Plachimada, Kerala, India by K N Nair, Antonyto Paul and Vineetha Menon; Daanish Books, Delhi, 2008; Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram; pp xvi + 132, Rs 300.
BOOK REVIEWnovember 15, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly36with gaps. The authors nevertheless con-clude that the agitation is successful in “institutional widening” and “institutional deepening” of the struggle. The emer-gence of the struggle, solidarity with the struggle from within the state and inter-nationally, the dynamics within and amongst them over time, and their impact on the governance and political structure are not addressed leaving the reader wondering what the Plachimada struggle is as aprocess. A number of events with Plachimada as the venue did take place, some of which find prominent mention. Their signifi-cance is at best speculative as this is not substantiated; neither is the role of per-sonalities, organisations and platforms that are mentioned substantiated. Media coverage and prominence by themselves are not indicative of their significance to the strengthening of the struggle; neither is the presence of “prominent” personalities. Such events need not necessarily lead to positive outcomes. What happened to the agitation over Parambikulam-Aliyar Project water supply during 2004-07? How is revival of the Moolathara lift irrigation prior to 2001 relevant to the present problem? Was the demand for Rs 2,500 insteadof Rs 1,500 per hectare as drought relief assistance met? Statements such as “thusin the new institutional environ-ment, local panchayatsareempoweredto enjoy ultimate authority on local govern-ance” are factually wrong in conception, law and practice. The water governance system that has come to be established through various laws creating a variety of institutions has not been critically exam-ined. That the significance of the litigation in the high court (and now in the Supreme Court) is on the jurisdiction of powers related to licensing of a factory manufac-turing non-alcoholic beverages on the ground of excessive exploitation of ground-water and not on the alleged crimes of HCBPL, has been missed out.The conclusions of the study are that institutional failures are at the root of the problem, and that institutions and insti-tutional arrangements should be put in place in order to ensure sustainable use of groundwater by the people on an equita-ble basis. The study also concludes that the local self-governments are em-powered adequately under the acts and rules of decentralisation in Kerala to plan and implement programmes for develop-ment and conservation of water resources. One would have expected such a study to outline the institutional shortcomings, examine the multifarious causes of these shortcomings and identify areas for recti-fication, reform or radical restructuring rather than make such generalities. The study valiantly sets for itself the ambi-tious task of bringing together the diverse dimensions of the Plachimada struggle. But it has not followed through with the required rigour and sustained interest, despite the availability of vast writings and analyses on these matters. 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