The giant bottleneck in Tamil Nadu's Thamirabharani river

Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi residents have to depend on the same packaged drinking water they are fighting against in court

Published: 26th March 2017 03:15 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th March 2017 03:19 AM   |  A+A-

A water treatment plant at South India Bottling Company;

Express News Service

The Madras High Court, based on the documents submitted before it, recently ruled that the Thamirabharani river basin has an excess of water in an average year and hence there was nothing wrong in giving water to the soft drink companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

“It was 24 days before water finally flowed through the corporation pipeline in January. We still get it only once a week for a few hours at odd timings,” says Kokila R, who lives in Keezhur Village in Thoothukudi district. For many residents of the Thoothukudi and Tirunelveli districts, the conclusion arrived by the high court seemed like a distant reality. They feel water is becoming more and more scarce every year.

People in these two districts along the Thamaraibharani, said to be the only perennial river in the State, over the years have become increasingly dependent on bottled water — usually in 20 litre cans — for drinking purposes.

Since the High Court order on March 2,  perhaps the crowd in the social media might have become silent over the issue, but the Tirunelveli town alone has witnessed over 20 protests opposing the verdict and demanding that water be stopped for the multinational giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola. They were clearly not ready to believe the records submitted in the court that the river actually holds water in excess. At the outset, the protest seemed to bear an anti-foreign-brands manifesto alone. But a closer look reveals the protesters were targeting only these two companies, when a host of others were taking water from the river.

A water treatment plant at South Indian Bottling Company | M Balamurugan

Water as a raw material
Why target only these two companies? “Other companies use water as a part of their manufacturing process, but these two companies use water as a raw material,” says D A Prabakar, one of the petitioner in the case that was dismissed. “Other companies sell products that use water for manufacturing, but these companies sell us back the same water,” he says.

The concept of packaged drinking water is not new. But the difference is most ‘mineral water’ manufacturers pump ground water through borewells for production. “What runs in Thamirabharani is sweet water. It does not need much processing and it is very profitable to use river water,” says S Janagarajan, an economist and a professor at the Madras Institute of Developmental Studies.

Documents say Prathista Business Solutions, which runs the manufacturing unit for Pepsi at Gangaikondan in Tirunelveli, buys the river water for a price of Rs 56.25 per thousand litres. The South India Bottling Company, which is Coca-Cola’s franchisee, buys it at Rs 37.50. With the average market price of a litre of packaged water being Rs 20, the protesters are angry that their river water is sold in turn to them for a price 350-500 times higher than the price the government sells the water to these firms.

The multinational giants, Pepsi and Coca-Cola, drew over 4 lakh litres of water a day in 2015-16 fiscal, according to documents obtained by the RTI Act by Ramiah Ariya, an activist from Arappor Iyakkam, an anti-corruption NGO.

However, the supply of water from Thamirabharani was stopped after the Madras High Court had passed the interim stay November 21, 2016. But another RTI petition filed by social activist S P Muthuraman reveals that SIPCOT, the state-run industries promotion body, had supplied water to Coca-Cola from open wells situated within the campus at Gangaikondan, during the period of injunction.

 The Pepsi unit at SIPCOT at Gangaikondan in 
Tirunelveli district | M Balamurugan 

When Express visited SIPCOT in Gangaikondan, three wells with cemented shed and a roof were spotted. Tanker lorries come wait for water to be pumped from the wells and take them to the compound of Coca-Cola. Outside the cement shed of each well, two security guards stand watch. One with a blue shirt and the other with an orange-brown. “The ones who are wearing blue shirt are from SIPCOT and the ones wearing the brown are from Coca-Cola,” said one of the security guards who did not want to be named.

SIPCOT’s managing director and IAS officer Vasuki R  said, “We supplied water only for domestic use by these companies. This water was not used as a raw material by the bottling companies. We have an obligation to supply water and we were asked not to supply water from Thamirabharani alone.”

The RTI also reveals that water was supplied to South India Bottling Company (Coca-Cola’s franchisee) from December 9, 2016, when the interim stay was in force. However, during this period, the SIPCOT had on average supplied 70,600 litres per day in December and 1,24,700 litres a day in January. Since the court prohibited supplying the river water, the SIPCOT has pumped the well water for supplying to the South India Bottling Company.

SIPCOT had supplied this water at a cost of `18.75 per 1,000 litres. Although SIPCOT claims that the water was supplied only for domestic purpose, activists and locals fail to the believe it. “A company would need a few thousand litres of water for domestic purpose at the most, not over a lakh litre a day,” said S P Muthuraman. The cost of building the shed around the wells was not borne by SIPCOT, he said suggesting that a private entity had built the closed shed. The RTI affirms the same.

Muthuraman adds that the company does not have ground water clearance to distribute it to private companies.

When asked if the wells had proper certification, Vasuki replied that the wells were built long ago and she was not aware if it had necessary certificates. Howeve, SIPCOT had sold the water to South India Bottling Company (Coca-Cola’s franchaisee) from the same wells, reveals the RTI reply.

State vice-president of Packaged Drinking Water Manufacturing Association Bala Subramaniam said the manufacturers cannot use water from open wells to produce packaged water. “We can take water only from borewells and we have get clearance from the Ground Water Board before taking water and have to also renew the certificate each year,” he said. “Usually water is not allotted to be taken from open wells as it can easily be poisoned or contaminated. To prevent this, companies used to build sheds around the wells, in olden days,” he added. 

Barathi Murugan, a social activist from Thamirabharani Nadhineer Pathugaapu Peravai, says the State does not comply with the national water policy.

“Right now 250 cusecs of water is being released into the river, of which 116 reaches Thoothukudi,” says Thoothukudi Collector M Ravi Kumar IAS. “According to our calculations, the storage in the dams will supply drinking water till May 10. A rain of 30 mm may extent the supply to about 2 weeks,” he said, adding that Thoothukudi requires 24 Million Litres per Day (5.2 MGD) and more is sent to other neighbouring districts.

According to him all industries in his district have been denied permission to draw river water. “Industries can buy water or use desalination plants along the coast, but they can’t take my people’s drinking water,” he says. Despite the move by the collector, several habitations receive water only once in nine days, he admits. But Tirunelveli collector M Karunakaran denies that the scarcity is as exaggerated as people portray it. “Water is supplied in 2,500 out of 2,506 villages every day. In other villages, water is supplied at least once in every three days,” he says.

The affidavit quoted in the judgment states, “Thamirabharani river basin is surplus by 305.83 Mcum in 2014. The studies show there is no scarcity of water in the subsequent years and no other massive development that alters the water balance.” While the study points to data from 2014, rainfall data from Public Works Department shows that 2016 saw the least rainfall since 1986.

Nainar Kulasekaran, a 96-year-old activist who founded the Thamirabharani Nadhineer Pathugaapu Peravai, says, “I have fought to save the river for seven decades. It is disappointing that the government believes there is a surplus on one side and gives funds for scarcity on the other.”

(Inputs from M Abdul Rabi, C Aruvel Raj)


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