Thursday, January 10, 2008

Mayilamma and the Struggles for Water

Remembering the frail old woman who stopped Coca Cola, defending the people’s right to water

I first came across Mayilamma a few years ago in Delhi. She was coming out of the Constitution Club in Rafi Marg, just across the Indian Newspaper Society building where I worked as a reporter for a Malayalam newspaper those days. She had come to the national capital as a representative of the adivasi-dalit action committee in her small village called Plachimada on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.

By then Plachimada and Mayilamma had become world famous. The dry village and the frail woman with untidy grey hair were by then symbols of a global resistance against Coca Cola. Mayilamma spoke to us Kerala journos in her peculiar dialect, which was neither Malayalam nor Tamil and one thing that was quite coherent was her loud and clear assertion: “We will never quit this struggle. We will not allow them to take our water.”

It was water that pitted this woman who was in her late sixties, living with her four children in her derelict hut in the adivasi hamlet miles away from the towns and cities, against the global giant. She was born and brought up in Muthalamada, a village on the border of Palakkad. Then when she became 15, her father Raman and mother Kurumanda married her off to Mari Muthu of Plachimada. She came to live with him in the village bearing him four children when Mari Muthu died leaving her to carry on life.

Life in these villages is tough. It is quite hot in the summer and the empty paddy fields dry up, the scorched earth emitting heat from within. The adivasis plant summer vegetable like water melon in the fields as inter-crop after paddy harvest, bringing water to nurse them from far away. That helps them survive in the off season when there is no work in the fields after the harvest is over.

The village Plachimada is in the Chittur region of Palakkad district and it is a predominantly agricultural area, with paddy being the dominant crop. Sugar cane is also planted in some places and the main source of water for the villagers is the canals from the Malampuzha Reservoir which irrigates thousands of acres of fields. But water has always been in short supply, the cultivators giving up paddy as the costs were going up while their incomes came drastically down, and during the past two decades Palakkad had seen a massive drop in paddy cultivation. Even the State Government’s Statistics Department gave the figures that up to 40 per cent of the paddy fields had been converted into less water consuming crops like coconuts or simply left fallow, making the life of the adivasis and dalits all the more difficult. They had no land and no means to survive as the traditional ways of life came to a standstill.

It was then the global giant came to their village. Armed with a license form the State Government and the local panchayart, Coca Cola set up their plant in Plachimada. Their rival Pepsi had another plant in another village, Pudussery.

Within six months of their operations, all hell broke loose. The water level in the wells and other sources dropped in an unusual manner and the village turned into kind of a desert in a matter of a few months. Within the highly fortified compound of the Coca Cola plant, they had sunk six huge and deep wells that suck up all the sub-surface water leaving the villagers literally high and dry. The long trek of the women in summer months in search of water became longer and their anger boiling. It was then on April 22, 2002, the tribal women marched to the gates of Coca Cola company, and launched an indefinite satyagraha that entered into the annals of history. Police came in force, threw them out, they came back again and again and soon the agitation became a direct confrontation between the tribal women supported by the activists from all over the country and the world against the Cola giant.

It was a long and arduous struggle. Mayilamma went to the small dilapidated hut they had set up in front of the gate every day and served water ands food to the satyagrahis, collecting everything from the public who supported their struggle. She was a face that appeared at the satyagraha scene everyday; whether it was rain or shine, whether she had work or not, whether her children had been fed or not. She was the public face of the agitation of these adivasi women who demanded that their water be restored to them.

The struggle raised a number of issues and caught the attention of national and international press. BBC and others came, investigated the situation, exposed the lethal content in the chemical discharge from the plant that was causing harm to the soil as well, the High Court and Supreme Court intervened. The Kerala High Court in a landmark judgment against Coca Cola said that the right to water resources was a fundamental right of the people. A Joint Parliamentary Committee on colas and aerated waters set up by the Federal Government in Delhi sharply criticized to the excessive drawing of sub surface water for commercial purposes ignoring the need of the people living in the vicinity.

As the struggle entered its 1000th day, Plachimada witnessed a huge turnout of activists and supporters from all over the world. The occasion was observed as world water meet which felicitated Mayilamma and others who launched this struggle. She was selected for the Outlook national award and was feted in many forums.

This month the adivasi action committee is observing the first death anniversary of Mayilamma who died on January 6, 2007. She died after a long and hard struggle, her last days spent in acute pain as her skin was wracked with psoriasis. The one thing she repeated to all those who came to listen to her were these words: “We cannot leave our water to others. We need water from birth, we need it for our life and we need it till our death. Even after death we need it as we must wash the bodies of our dead before they set out on their last journey!”


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