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Cola plant in TN stirs controversy

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Last updated on: June 16, 2005 19:46 IST

In Tamil, the name Gangaikondan means a place that carries the Ganga within it.

It is an ironic name, located as it is in a hot arid region in Tirunelveli in southern Tamil Nadu.

The people in Gangaikondan are totally dependent on the monsoon for agriculture.

There are two lakes, which fill up in the rain. If they don't, then there is no agricultural activity in Tirunelveli.

Last year, the monsoon was good, so the paddy harvest was good.

In Tirunelveli, very few farmers have wells. But there is no drinking water problem in Tirunelveli because water is supplied through pipes from a borewell dug in the bed of the Thambiraparani river.

From the very same riverbed, other pipes carry water to the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu Ltd industrial estate in Tirunelveli.

The SIPCOT industrial estate stretches over 2,000 acres. Established 15 years ago, it has only two plants to show for itself. Both are limestone crushing units, which make cem, a powder of natural lime, used for whitewashing.

Across the road, just outside SIPCOT, is a flourishing flour mill owned by the Lakshmi Mills group.

The third and most recent entry into SIPCOT in Tirunelveli is Coca-Cola. A franchisee in Tirunelveli, who has an agreement with the cola major, will use its concentrate to make Coke.

The South India Bottling Company Pvt Ltd is located on a soft-mud road, 3.5 kilometres from the national highway to Madurai.

There are five huge godowns at the location, temporary shelters for the workers building the factory.

Hundreds of carpenters bend steel rods to make the skeleton of the unit. There are hundreds more casual labourers helping to build the factory. The yellow helmets they wear for their safety look out of place on their heads. These men and women normally work in fields with a cloth tied over their heads to protect them from the sun.

The construction is being handled by Chennai-based Consolidated Consortium Constructions Ltd, who has the contract to build the factory for SIBCL.

The engineers in Tirunelveli say construction will finish in August and production will start in September.

V Lakshmipathy, a supervisor with SIBCL, is upset with the media. "Two months back my senior from Chennai, J Ramamoorthy, addressed a press meet in Tirunelveli. Not one newspaper reported the news. But every day, the same papers carry the views of those opposed to us," he said.

"Two days back, reporters from two television channels came here. They too did not carry what I told them. But they went to town with the views of our critics," he said.

"Everyone is saying we will deplete the groundwater reserves. We are not allowed to sink borewells. For that matter, we are not allowed to sink any well here. We have been promised 5 lakh litres of water by SIPCOT. And SIPCOT has an allotment of 4.5 million litres daily from the Public Works Department," says Lakshmipathy.

"What is wrong if they give us 5 lakh litres? It is coming from the riverbed of a perennially flowing river," he says, clearly agitated.

V Kamsan, the panchayat president of Gangaikondan, says he gave SIBCL the approval when he saw all the papers were in order.

"The PWD is supplying them water from elsewhere. It is not this plant alone. Nobody is allowed to sink borewells inside SIPCOT," he said.

Kamsan admits he has not visited the plant yet. He says he will attend the factory's inauguration and hopes SIBCL will give jobs to locals.

The plant has been opposed by all the political parties in Tamil Nadu, barring the ruling All India Anna Dravida Kazhagam.

Environmentalists oppose the plant giving examples of multinationals' allegedly exploitative behaviour in other parts of the country.

Dr S Krishnasamy of the Pudhiya Tamilagam party says he has nothing against industries coming up in SIPCOT, but he will support industries that did not need so much water.

The Thambiraparani river is the lifeline of three southern districts in Tamil Nadu. Any company which is to be supplied 5 lakh litres of water a day will inevitably be reviled by farmers in the three districts.

The farmers use the water to grow paddy, bananas, betel leaves, coconuts and other vegetables. They cannot accept that so much water will be diverted for a cola that is not essential to their lives.

A Ganesh Nadar in Tirunelveli