Monday, 3 November 2014

Battle Suriyur: Villagers up in arms against bottling unit as water level dips to alarming levels

Four years ago, when Gopal Vallatharasu (61), a farmer from Suriyur village in Trichy district noticed construction activity near his 4.5 acre farmland, he was enthused. Like most of his neighbours, Gopal too thought some rich politician must be building an engineering college or an international school, as is the trend these days.

In a village where most parents still consider school education as a futile pursuit, the presence of an educational institution was considered a boon.

In 2011, when LA Bottlers Private Limited, a bottling unit that took bulk orders from Pepsi India, commenced operations from the site and word spread that they would be extracting ground water to produce soft drinks, the villagers’ enthusiasm turned into despair.

Gopal Vallatharasu pointing at the well in his farm
“The doom began on the day the factory started operations,” said Gopal sitting in an open playground at Periya Suriyur on Thursday. Although it is time to harvest the samba crop, he has not even completed transplanting the crop. Gopal and his neighbours eagerly await the rains to begin transplantation as they do not have sufficient ground water for irrigation.

“Suriyur and surrounding villages do not have any water source other than rain. Yet, we could get ground water at just 10 or 15 feet until a few years ago. Villagers only dug wells and used the water for raising three successful crops every year,” said S. Marimuthu, president of the adjoining Kanthaloor village panchayat who has been spearheading a campaign against the bottling unit for the past several years.

The plot here is similar to any village in India where an industrial unit had come up usurping agricultural land. Villagers fear loss of livelihood and resist industrialization. Usually, the villagers fight a losing battle against a big corporate barring a few exceptional instances such as at Plachimada in Kerala.

This intense conflict has been the topic of several films, most recently the Vijay-starrer Kaththi. Villagers of Suriyur believe that the movie is based on their struggle, except that there is no super hero to ensure that all is well in the end.

According to Ramaiah, whose wife Sarada Devi Ramaiah is the Suriyur panchayat president, the bottling unit has dug six giant borewells from which they extract water day and night. “Every day, hundreds of lorries make several trips transporting the soft drinks that are made here. In the three years that the factory has been operating here, the ground water here has depleted by atleast 50 feet,” says Ramaiah, also a farmer with several acres of land.

To illustrate the point, Ramaiah and Gopal Vallatharasu take this reporter to the latter’s farmland, a significant portion of which remains unused. Pointing at a large well in his farm that has been recently deepened by atleast 90 feet, Gopal says that he is still struggling to pump out enough water to irrigate all his land.

“The difference is more alarming during summer. If the water level in my well is 80 feet deep in the morning, it would go down by atleast five feet by late evening. So much water that is being extracted by the firm that at this rate, this entire village and surrounding areas will be barren in a few years,” Gopal says.

The villagers of Suriyur and Kanthaloor have staged several protests demanding the closure of the unit. They have approached the district administration and even the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court seeking the closure of the unit. On July 24, 2014, atleast a thousand villagers including several women stormed the bottling unit demanding its closure. The district administration immediately sprung into action and even ensured that three of the six bore wells were closed.

However, a few days later they got permission from the Ground Water Authority of the PWD to dig three new borewells in the neighbourhing Kumbakudi panchayat.
A view of Suriyur village 

“Using RTI, we have obtained enough information to prove that the factory has been construction without obtaining adequate permissions. The building itself has not got approval from the local planning authority but the proprietors have got fire license and pollution clearance. It is obvious that a lot of palms have been greased. We have highlighted all the violations to the district authorities already. What we do not understand is the administration’s delay in taking punitive action,” says Marimuthu.

The residents of Surayur and Kanthaloor claim that around 7500 acres of farmland would get affected by the bottling unit affecting the livelihood of more than 2000 families. “Until something is done immediately, the damage will be irreparable,” Suriyur panchayat president Ramaiah says. 

Collector says bottling unit is illegal, owners claim it as politically motivated

At the other end of Suriyur village, A Joseph Francis, managing director of LA Bottlers Pvt Ltd and son of deceased Congress leader L Adaikalaraj, sits in his office and watches over the operations of his sprawling bottling unit every afternoon. He is well aware of the resentment among locals and has beefed up security at the plant substantially.

Dismissing the protests and agitations as politically motivated, Francis says that the local leaders just want to exploit the situation for personal gains. “First the communists took up the protests and then the BJP leaders continued it. Everything was quiet for a while, after the release of this new movie, they have started it all over again,” he says.

According to Joseph Francis, LA Bottlers is not engaged in any illegal activity. “On the contrary, we have provided employment to over 100 villagers. We have got clearance from the Ground Water Authority of the PWD to extract 5.8 lakh litres of water every day through six bore wells dug in my property. But, after the villagers felt that it was depleting their ground water levels, we have shut down three of them and got license for three new bore wells from another panchayat. We have got clearance from pollution control board as well and do not let out any effluents,” he says.
A view of LA Bottlers Pvt Ltd

Joseph points out that he had detailed discussions with the previous panchayat president and got his approval. “If the villagers had a problem, they should have stopped it then. How can they do it now after I have invested so much,” he says.

The managing director of the firm however said that there had been a minor glitch in obtaining permission for the building from the local town planners. “It was more of an oversight as the person who was in charge had fallen ill during the process. However, we have approached the concerned authorities and have also got a direction from the court allowing us to approach the state government for further approvals,” he says.

To emphasize his stand, Joseph even admits that he no longer extracted water from his borewells but purchases them from private sources instead.

However, Trichy collector Jayashree Muralidharan IAS does not seem convinced that LA Bottlers Pvt Ltd is completely legal. “When I checked out in detail about the firm, I was shocked to know that the building was illegal as it had not obtained any permission from the department of town and country planning. Even if they had got clearances from local bodies, they are not sufficient for a project of that size,” Jayashree says.

On October 20, 2014, the collector had sent a report to the department of town and country planning ‘recommending for rejection ‘ of the project.  “We have found that there was no zone conversion from agricultural to industrial land, no building plan approval and that the apprehension of villagers on depleting ground water is genuine,” she says. “Now, it is up to the state government to take a call.”

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