Lessons from Plachimada for Water Law: Who should Own the Groundwater?
In early 2000s, a small village in the Southern part of India – Plachimada, gained global attention for its willingness to take on a global multinational – the Coca Cola. The Coca- Cola soft drink manufacturing plant extracted millions of gallons of water every day – depleting the groundwater resources of the entire village. This prolonged extraction left decade old wells dry and its water unsuitable for drinking. Faced with this challenge, the villagers launched a marathon struggle demanding that the company be shut down. After years of protests and the global attention that it gathered, the company was forced to finally shut down its plant. However, the damage was already done – the groundwater sources had depleted almost beyond any repair.
In the background of this incident, this thesis looks at the legal framework concerning groundwater in India – which at present conceptualizes it to be purely private property. It needs to be remembered that Plachimada is no stand alone story: indeed it has the capacity to reproduce itself elsewhere and evidence is accumulating to show that smaller versions of the story are already in the making. Groundwater sources in India are fast depleting and projections indicate that it might exhaust within less than two decades in some parts of the country. In a country with large inequities of access, power, capacity and capability, such a phenomenon can leave the less empowered and the poor denied access to groundwater.
At once we may fall for the rhetoric of state ownership and management of groundwater. However, past experience, particularly from surface water management has shown us that equity, access or decisions that serve the interests of the weak are not always made – the State has its agenda of creating, reinforcing and recreating its power and control over natural resources.
This thesis, hence, argues that groundwater needs to be reconceptualised as belonging to the community and is to be managed by the community. The paper explores the legal options available before us at present to make such a formulation and further argues for a more constructive and engaging role for the Panchayat system, the constitutional envisagement for decentralization of governance, in the ownership and management of groundwater.
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