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Tribute to Water Warrior
Polaris Institute’s Tony Clarke pays tribute to life of water activist, Mailamma, in India
On January 6, 2007, Ms. Sathi Mailamma, leader of the powerful and prolonged struggle for water justice and the campaign against Coca-Cola’s water takings in Plachimada, India, passed away.
Inspired by Mailamma’s spirited determination, the women of Plachimada and surrounding communities organized a relentless campaign against the water takings by Coca-Cola’s state-of-the art bottling plant. Almost five years later, the campaign continues, sparking waves of non-violent protests against the water takings of Coca-Cola and Pepsico at their bottling plants throughout India.
I first met Mailamma two years ago. I had been invited by my colleague and well known social movement leader Vandana Shiva plus M.P. Veerendrakumar the Member of Parliament from the region, to participate in the celebrations marking the 1000 days of peaceful protest and resistance against the Coke plant in Plachimada, January 2005. Other social movement leaders from India were also on hand to mark the occasion, including Metha Patkar of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements. As well, the event provided an opportunity to launch our just published report and book on the bottled water industry, Inside the Bottle.
When Mailamma discovered that she and her neighbour’s wells were being heavily polluted and/or rapidly drained by the Coca-cola plant operations, she founded the Coca-CVirudha Samara Samiti and mounted a campaign againsthe company in the spring of 2002. To capture water forfactory operations, Coca-Cola had drilled deep bore holes, drawing up to 1.5 million liters from local water sources a day. Meanwhile, waste sludge from the coke plant supplto local farmers was found to contain high levels of cadmium and lead causing skin disorders among villagers.
On April 22, 2002, Mailamma organized a group of women to hold a 24 hour vigil outside the gates of the Coke factory, demanding that the plant be shut down permanently. What began as a daily resistance, turned into years of powerful community actioneach and every day.
In support of the vigil, the local government [panchayat] took measures denying the Coca-Cola plant’s access to the local groundwater. In 2003, the State’s High Court upheld the right of the panchayat’s decision and ordered the company to find other water sources. A year later, a Supreme Court monitoring committee in India also ordered Coca-Cola to retrieve its sludge waste from the farmers’ lands and to ensure that people around the plant had access to clean water. In March 2004, the Coke bottling plant in Plachimada was forced to shut down, and has remained so till this day. Following Coca-Cola’s final appeal, the Supreme Court of India is now expected to hand down it’s ruling on whether or not the High Court’s decision in favour of the villagers will be upheld.
1000th Day of Resistance Action
During the celebration of the 1000 days of resistance two years ago, I remember well the time spent with Mailamma. Speaking different languages, communication was not always easy. With the help of a translator, I learned a little about her early days in organizing the protest and about her family’s involvement in the struggle. I gleaned more by watching her interact with her people, working quietly behind the scenes at events or preparing a new group of women for the next phase of the vigil.
Her dignity, courage and spirit of determination were radiant. And, then there was one special moment I won’t forget. During the ceremony, the two of us were invited to exchange gifts and say a few words to the gathered assembly. But, instead of speaking, we just looked at each other’s eyes, smiled and embraced. This was one time when gestures communicated more than words.
Spreading the word about her passing, Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center recently noted that Mailamma had been recognized for her leadership in India, receiving “the prestigious Speak Out award by the Outlook magazine and the Sthree Shakthi Award (Women's Power Award).” For many of us in the global water justice movement, Mailamma will also be remembered as an example of an inspirational grassroots water warrior in our times.
As Gandhi activist Aflatoon reminds us, she gave new meaning to the American Indian proverb, “We do not inherit the earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children." Warning about the future dangers of the ‘water guzzling’ Coke plant, Mailamma declared: “…imagine the situation after ten-fifteen years! Our children would then curse us and would be forced to live on a barren land!' By Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute and activist in the global water justice movement. He is also co-author of Blue Gold: The Battle Against to Corporate theft of the World’s Water [with Maude Barlow, 2002] and author of Inside the Bottle: Exposing the Bottled water Industry .