Kochi: Coke is facing a tough time in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Greenpeace, an international forum of environmental activists, has urged the Kerala government to close down the Coca-Cola bottling plant at Plachimada, in Palakkad district, for the "criminal cheating" it had indulged in by passing on to the farmers of the area "toxic wastes" in the guise of fertiliser.
Ameer Shahul, the corporate campaign coordinator of Greenpeace, on Monday met top government authorities to present the findings of a laboratory analysis conducted at the Exeter University in the UK showing the presence of "dangerous" levels of heavy metals in the sludge samples collected from Plachimada. The company has been distributing this sludge among the local farmers as fertiliser for the last three years.
Shahul says Greenpeace too was associated with the analysis of the sludge and water samples collected from Plachimada by the Face the Facts programme presenter of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), John Waite, in July this year as part of an investigation into complaints against the bottling plant. Greenpeace has a team of nine scientists at the Exeter University ready to vouchsafe for the veracity of the findings.
On 25 July, the BBC had reported the presence of "unacceptable" levels of cadmium and lead in the sludge and water samples collected from Plachimada. Cadmium is a known carcinogen and lead, a metal that can affect the central nervous system. Quoting experts, the BBC had reported that "the results have devastating consequences for those living near the areas where this waste has been dumped and for thousands who depend on crops produced in these fields."
Giving the details of the inorganic analytical results, Shahul says the samples collected from Plachimada contained 100-microgram cadmium and 1,100mg lead per kg of dry sludge. The other elements detected in the sludge included 4,000mg aluminium, 190mg chromium, 90mg copper, 10,000mg iron, 63mg manganese, 33mg nickel, 1,580mg phosphorus and 680mg zinc per kg.
The water samples contained 65.7mg of lead and more than 10mg of cadmium per litre. The other elements reported were 8,600mg aluminium, 36mg chromium, more than 30mg copper, 16,200mg iron, 987mg manganese, more than 30mg nickel, 623mg phosphorous and 135mg zinc per litre.
Shahul says the results are above the threshold levels specified by the World Health Organisation. Cadmium could accumulate in the kidneys and, with repeated exposure, cause kidney failure and cancer. Lead is especially dangerous to children and the results of exposure could be fatal. Even at low levels, it could cause mental retardation and severe anaemia, he says, quoting known literature on the subject.
Shahul says sludge samples were taken for analysis by Waite when he became curious about Coca-Cola's claim that, as a "humanitarian gesture to the local community," it was supplying the sludge generated at its bottling plant free of cost to the farmers. The farmers who used it complain of its nauseating odour and rashes on their skin. The contamination has, apparently, spread to the drinking water sources of the region as well.
Shahul says he has met the ministers for local administration, health and industry to apprise them of the dangers the people of Plachimada are being exposed to. He also met the chairman of the State Pollution Control Board demanding action against the bottling plant.
Kerala Minister for Local Administration Cherkkalam Abdullah told the state assembly on Monday that the government will examine all aspects, including environmental issues, before taking a decision on renewing the licence granted to the Hindustan Coca-Cola company at Plachimada in Palakkad district.
Replying to a submission by Dr A Neelalohithadasan Nadar (Janata Dal-S), he said the government will hear the appeal of the company on 6 August as per a directive of the Kerala High Court.
Abdullah said it was during the previous Left Democratic Front regime that the factory was granted licence. "The government is examining all aspects including the allegation that the sludge generated by the company contains toxic materials like cadmium."
Alleging that the opposition parties are trying to politicise the issue, he said the company is running nine factories in different parts of the country including four in West Bengal. "The Plachimada unit employs 500 people directly and provides indirect jobs to over 1,000."