Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Kerala: community management, Coca Cola and river struggles

As we crossed the border between the two states, the difference between water-scarce Tamil Nadu and Kerala with its abundant rainfalls immediately became clear. The favourable routes of the summer and winter monsoons along the Indian subcontinent make Kerala green and lush and also results in a less immediate water crisis than is the case in the far drier state of Tamil Nadu.

But also in Kerala, there are intense struggles over water. Just across the border is Plachimada, known worldwide as the village that managed to shut down the Coca Cola plant that was sucking up the water sources and polluting the local environment. We were warmly welcomed by some twenty activists from the Struggle Committee, in a hut just opposite of the main gate of the Coke plan, which has been closed for over 1400 days. A battle was won, but the struggle is not over, the activists explain. The closure of the plant is not definite and the future of Coke in Plachimada may be decided in the High Court of Kerala and the Indian Supreme Court. The Struggle Committee’s main demands, in addition to the final closure of the plant, are: financial compensation from Coca Cola, prosecution of the company for its environmental crimes, and legal recognition of community rights to water. The Plachimada activists ask us about CocaCola in our part of the world and how real international solidarity can be achieved.

Half an hour further into Kerala we arrive in the village Erimayur. In this panchayat of 35,000 inhabitants, 100% access to water has been achieved. The village is an example of successful decentralisation, as part of the “People’s Plan Campaign” launched by Kerala’s progressive government in 1999. In Kerala, the government transfers 30% of the state budget to the communities. This makes decentralisation in this state very different from elsewhere in India (and other developing countries), where responsibility for public services has been left to local governments without the needed capacity and resources to fulfil these tasks. Water systems in Erimayur are run by 50 community cooperatives, in which women play a very active role. As a result of the community taking control over its own water supply, costs (and tariffs) have been reduced by 40%. Rain water harvesting plays a major role in the village. About 100 panchayats in Kerala have achieved improvements in water supply through forms of community management similar to that implemented in Erimayur.

After enjoying a marvellous meal with the family of the women leading one of the community cooperatives, we continue to the city of Chalakudy. The Water Kerala Network has organised the launch of the “Reclaiming Public Water” book in the Malayalam language. Local activists talk about their struggle against a proposed dam in the Chalakudy River, a project which would very negatively impact communities and the environment. Activists argue that the river (already overdammed, with six dams along its 145 kilometers) does not only belong to state institutions like the Kerala Electricity Board, but also to the communities living along the river. As during the visit to Plachimada, we are reminded that the need for democratisation is not restricted to water supply but is also a major issue for water resources and rivers.

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