India: Police Investigate Death of Coca-Cola Bottling Plant Opponent

CHENNAI, India, February 2, 2006 (ENS) - A Coca-Cola franchise company in India is the subject of a police inquiry into the death of a community leader who had publicly objected to a planned Coca-Cola bottling plant in the village where he chaired the local council.

On January 30, Justice P. Murgesen of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court directed the Superintendent of Police to register a case into the suspicious death of V. Kamsan. The judge further directed the Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department to conduct an investigation into Kamsan's death August 30, 2005.

The court action came as a result of a petition filed by Kamsan's wife, Mrs. Santhanamary.

Kamsan was chairman of the village council in Gangaikondan, southern Tamil Nadu where the South India Bottling Company Private Limited - a Coca-Cola franchisee - plans to locate a bottling plant.

The drinks plant, planned for the government owned Gangaikondan SIPCOT Industrial Estate, would withdraw about five lakh (500,000) liters of water from the Thamirabarani River, drawing opposition from political leaders, community members and activists.


Residents of Gangaikondan, a village near India's southern tip, go for water at the river. (Photo by Nityanand Jayaraman courtesy India Resource Center)
They fear that withdrawal of water from the Thamirabarani River would be harmful to farming activities in the Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts, which are already suffering a water crisis.

On August 23, 2005, Kamsan convened a meeting of the Gangaikondan village council which passed a resolution against the proposed Coca-Cola plant, saying, "As the unit will cause environmental and health hazards besides triggering acute drinking water scarcity, the government should immediately cancel the permission given to the company, which is planning to prepare a range of soft drinks here."

But less than 12 hours after the village council meeting, Kamsan issued a prepared statement to "The Hindu" newspaper, one of India's leading English newspapers, contradicting the resolution passed earlier in the day.

When asked by "The Hindu" about issuing the conflicting statement, Kamsan said, "I am under immense pressure from the public, the police and some other quarters. So I have issued this statement."

On that same evening, according to Mrs. Santhanamary's petition, Coca-Cola company officials "coerced" her husband into accompanying them to a hotel in Tirunelveli, detained him for days and forced him to drink alcohol, even though he was suffering from jaundice.

Kamsan was brought back home by Coca-Cola company officials on August 28 in very serious condition, and according to the petition, he said that the Coca-Cola company officials had forced him to drink liquor and drop the village council resolution.

Kamsan was admitted to the Tirunelveli hospital where he died on August 30, 2005.

There is strong community opposition to the proposed Coca-Cola bottling plant in Gangaikondan, as there is to several other such bottling plants in locations across India where water is scarce. Foul play is suspected by many community members in Kamsan's sudden disappearance and death, as well as the timing between his public opposition to the plant and his death.

Last Friday, the Gangaikondan village council passed another resolution asking the state government to cancel the license of the proposed facility "as the effluents discharged from the plant will pollute the environment, groundwater and soil."

"The Coca-Cola company in India talks a lot about having good community relations, rainwater harvesting, transparency and accountability but the ground reality is that the company is engaged in all sorts of dubious activities in an attempt to intimidate local communities, particularly where there is significant local opposition to its operations," said T. Fatimson of the Campaign for Right to Livelihood and Food Security, one of the active groups working in Gangaikondan to oppose the bottling plant.

"No company, however large, is above the law, and we expect a thorough police investigation into the suspicious circumstances surrounding Mr. Kamsan's death," said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, an international campaigning organization based in San Francisco. "The investigation must ensure that there is no interference from Coca-Cola company authorities."