The CPI-led Kerala government's decision to bring in a bill: Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims — Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal —2011 Bill in the State Assembly yesterday is certainly an epic decision. 'The Bill proposes to get compensation from the company and to form a tribunal to provide time-bound compensation. The tribunal is to have a chairman, a technical member and an administrative member.'
Piloting the bill, the water resources minister N K Premachandran said: "Plachimada factory caused serious damage to the agriculture sector and the area’s water resources, leading to serious shortage of drinking water, among other problems. Metals like cadmium, chromium and lead were also excluded from the factory and that caused health problems to several people in that area. This caused skin as well as respiratory problems to several people in that area."
The Kerala bill follows the recommendations of a high powered committee that suggested setting up a tribunal to realise Rs 216-crore compensation from Coca Cola.
The Plachimada bill is historic in many ways. Far away in Ecuador, a court held Chevron Corp. responsible for oil drilling contamination in a wide swath of Ecuador's northern jungle and ordered the oil giant to pay $9.5 billion in damages and cleanup costs.
The amount — $8.6 billion plus a legally mandated 10 percent reparations fee — was far below the $27.3 billion award recommended by a court-appointed expert but appeared to be the highest damage award ever issued in an environmental lawsuit.
But whether the plaintiffs — including indigenous groups who say their hunting and fishing grounds in Amazon River headwaters were decimated by toxic wastewater that also raised the cancer rate — can collect remains to be seen. (Read the full report at: http://bit.ly/eM5uxQ).
Nevertheless, Ecuador has shown courage to stand up to the might of the multinationals. The outgoing Kerala government too has to be applauded for its courageous stand against Coca Cola which has been faced with opposition in Plachimada for quite long now. Unlike India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has always allowed big business to get away with murder, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan has demonstrated political sagacity by following the principle of 'polluter pays'.
Although Coca Cola has denied any exploitation by saying: "we disagree with the recommendations of the high powered committee and subsequent follow-up", I think it is high time that big business are taken to task for the damage done to the environment and people's livelihoods. They cannot be allowed to escape liability by providing some alms through the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) window.
In the days to come, I am sure both the Ecuadorian case against Chevron Corp and Kerala's tribunal against Coke will be hotly debated. I am not sure whether the new government that comes up in Kerala will demonstrate the same zeal to pursue the case, but surely these are developments that will set the trend. More and more such cases (and tribunals) across the country will certainly help in minimising the resulting environmental damage.
Knowing the dubious role played by the Indian government (and some of India's top business houses) in protecting the commercial interests of Union Carbide in the infamous Bhopal gas tragedy case that killed an estimated 15,000 people, Coke will certainly put all efforts in 'educating' the policy makers. Union Carbide escaped by paying a paltry compensation of $ 470 million in 1989. Instead of making the Union Carbide pay for the clean-up, the government has now come forward to do the job. What a shame.
In Ecuador, the court decision 'specifies that Chevron pay $6 billion for cleanup of soil and water, $1.4 billion to put build health care systems, $800 million for creating health care plans and attending to cancer patients — the court-appointed expert had calculated 1,401 pollution-cased cancer deaths.
The balance is earmarked for recovering native plant species, water distribution systems and repairing cultural damage.'
I only hope the Indian judiciary too learns from the example set by the Ecuador judge. Even if the penalty is small, he has at least sought investment in areas which no longer receives priority in judicial (and economic) parlance.