Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Grand Trunk Road, from Tehran to Dacca which passes through five countries was planned by Shershah Suri. The road was meticulously planned with wells and inns along the way for the benefit of the travellers. The road is popularly known as Sher Shah Suri Marg (Road) in India. Huge 'glow sign boards' across the highway have come up lately with coloured portraits of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declaring that conversion of the road into a 'four lane, super-highway is part of his dream project The project is funded by World Bank. Lakhs of trees on both sides of the road have been cut down. The project is known as 'Golden Quadrangle with the four metropolitan cities, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata at its corners. Technological 'progress' in road building has replaced huge road building machines for manual labour. Rural workers are available during the days their fields remain fallow but they are not employed in the Highway Project.

Mehdiganj is situated on Sher Shah Suri Marg, 20 Kms from Varanasi. Problems of farmers, potters and youth of Mehdiganj started way back in 1995 when Kejriwal Beverages Pvt. Ltd. established a bottling plant for soft drinks of Parle (Thums Up, Limca, Gold Spot etc.) The Plant was built on 7 acres of agricultural land which included parts of common property resources (Gram-Samaj Land). Permanent jobs were promised to the young people of the village. The company distributed a large some of money to a few influential persons of the village. Coca Cola took over Parle Cold drinks soon after it was allowed an entry into Indian Market along with Pepsi. It is worth mentioning that Coca Cola left India in 1977 when it was asked to reduce foreign equity in the company.

Bharat Coca Cola Bottling North East Private Limited got the land, buildings and machinery transferred to its name on 10.2.99

Plant does not take electricity from the Power Grid Corporation. It functions on power generated by two huge diesel power generators. One of the generators consumes 360 liters of diesel per hour. There are two tube wells which run 24 hours to draw lakhs of litres of underground water. The plant has about 60 odd permanent employees and almost 400 contractual labour. Salary of the General Manager of the Plant is 1 lakh 20 thousand per month (4000 Rs per day) whereas the worker gets Rs. 66 per day.

The factory has been disposing its toxic industrial waste into the neighbouring fields and mango groves for the past few months. Solid Chemical waste is also being dumped in near by fields. Crops and grass in submerged area are totally destructed. Total area submerged by the factory waste is around 20 Acres. The polluted water creates rashes on human skin. Polluted water stagnating in the fields has become a breading ground for mosquitoes leading to Malaria. A village dog died after drinking the water. Wheat, Paddy and chick peas crops have been destroyed. Some huge trees have also dried up.

Heavy consumption of under ground water by the company has lead to lowering of underground water, level from 15 to 40 feets. Water level of a historical well built during Sher Shahs regime has fallen 40 feets. Drinking water was earlier supplied from neighbouring village Bhikharipur situated on the other side of the highway through pipeline. This has stopped due to construction of the 'Golden Quadrangle'. Villagers are totally dependent on hand pumps for their daily needs. Water from the hand pumps should be tested for contamination.

A local court has found Coca Cola company guilty of cheating land revenue worth 1,50,7500 rupees. An equal amount of penalty has also been imposed on the company. The verdict also mentions that the company has illegally occupied a portion of Common Property Resources ( Gram Samaj land) of the village. The penalty was imposed under section 47 A of Indian Stamps Act.

Some mainstream political leaders have been instrumental in helping the company's illegal work get done by pressurising the local Government administrators. Kalraj Mishra former State President of B.J.P., Rangnath Mishra (former State Minister) and Surendra Patel (Local M.L.A. and Science and Technology Minister in the U.P. Government) are the most notable. Local people believe that they received large sum of money from the company for such favours. The company involves these Political Leaders in its 'public relation' programmes too. The Company once sent its bus to bring the neighbourhood school children for a visit to the plant with an offer of serving them their cold drink free, but the school authority refused. The local M.L.A. once distributed pencils,erasers etc. put in Fanta cans to the school children. Three tri cycles for physically handicapped have been distributed by the local M.L.A. These tri cycles carry coca cola ice boxes fitted on them. These measures have an adverse reaction of the local people.

Efforts to organize the contract workers are met with severe oppressive measures. Five such young men were imprisoned on false charges filed by the company.

Destruction caused by the pollution from the factory has forced the local farmers to organise themselves and demand 'Coca Cola Bhagao, Gaon Bachao'. They have sent petitions to all concerned authorities from the local District Magistrate to the President of India. Organisations like Samajwadi Janparishad and Lok Samiti are supporting the movement. On 10th of May 2003 about 100 people held a demonstration at the plants gate. About 200 police persons were deputed by the District Authorities to 'protect' the plant. There were about 50 private security guards of the company too. These guards carried guns and sticks.

A public meeting was held in front of the plant where speakers described the exploitation of the world countries by multinational corporations.It was stressed that a long movement is needed to oust the company from the region .The meeting was presided over by Dr. Swati, National Vice President of Samajwadi Janparishad and Reader in Physics at Banaras Hindu University .

Village level meetings and training of youth for nonviolent direct action have been planned.Sajha Sanskriti Manch a platform of various peoples organisations,women's groups and human rights organisations of Varanasi have submitted a memorandum to District Magistrate.Varanasi demanding cancellation of industrial license of the bottling plant.The District Magistrate has set-up an enquiry.


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