Licences, Jurisdiction, Permits, Inspections, Property, Forests, Audits, Remedies, Criminal, Standing
In 1999, the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, a subsidiary of the Atlanta based Coca-Cola company, established a plant in Plachimada, in the Palakkad district of Kerala, southern India. The Perumatty Village Council gave a licence to the company to commence production in 2000. The legal battle began when Perumatty Grama Panchayat decided not to renew the license of the factory by its resolution on 7 April 2003. In the light of the resolution, the secretary of the Panchayat issued an order dated 15 May 2003 cancelling the license granted to the Company. Excessive exploitation of the groundwater by the Company, consequential environmental problems and the drinking water scarcity were the reasons for the action taken by the Panchayat. The Company filed an appeal before the government against the decision of the Panchayat. The government, on appeal, ordered the Panchayat to constitute a team of experts from the departments of Ground Water and Public Health and the State Pollution Control Board to conduct a detailed investigation into the allegation and to take a decision based on the investigation report. The Panchayat filed a writ petition against the order of the government on the ground that the protection and preservation of the water resources is the mandatory duty of the Panchayat and the government has no authority to interfere with it. Hence the core question came before the High Court was with regard to the power of the Panchayat to protect and preserve the water resources in its jurisdiction. The pollution and its impact were not produced and discussed in the Court. The single bench of the Kerala High Court relied upon the public trust doctrine, decided in favour of the power of the Panchayat to control the use of the groundwater by the Company and upheld the action taken by the Panchayat for protecting the fundamental rights of the people. The judge held that the groundwater does not belong to any person. No one can claim the ownership over the groundwater and extract as much as s/he can merely because s/he is the owner of the land. It was also held that the state is duty bound to protect and preserve the groundwater for and on behalf of the general public. The Court recognised that the State as a trustee is under a legal duty to protect natural resources. It considered that these resources, meant for public use, cannot be converted into private ownership. It asserted that the government had a duty to act to protect against excessive groundwater exploitation and the inaction of the State in this regard was tantamount to infringement of the right to life of the people guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The High Court ordered the plant to stop drawing the groundwater within a month, ruling that the amount of water extracted by the plant was illegal. But at the same time, it ordered the Village Council to renew the licence and not interfere with the functioning of the Company as long as it was not extracting the prohibited ground water.