Extending Caste Discrimination Liability to Multi-National Corporations in India: Lessons From Coca-Cola in Kerala
The Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Act of 1989 (hereafter, ‘the Act’) in India guarantees an institutional framework which, among other things, prevents the rampant public and cultural discrimination against the Scheduled community of India. In a welcome move from the Indian state of Kerala on the 12th of June this year, a case under the Act was filed against corporate giant Coca-Cola for exploiting and polluting groundwater sources of the backward Scheduled Caste community in the Plachimada region in the state.
This historic enactment of the Act finds its legal and constitutional basis in Article 46 of the Constitution of India, which prevents social injustice and exploitation against the Scheduled community in India. The Act was born out of the rampant atrocities and socio-cultural exploitation that were observed in India post independence (1947), and the failure of the erstwhile 1974 Protection of Civil Rights Act to respond effectively to this. Certain provisions were enacted within the text of the Act that sought to address the lived realities of caste violence in the country, including the denial of anticipatory bail to accused persons under the Act (Section 18), the setting up of compulsory monitoring systems at the district and village levels (Section 21 read with Rule 3 of the 1995 Prevention of Atrocities Rules), as well as establishing Special Courts and Prosecutors for offences committed under the Act (Section 14).
The larger objective of such social welfare legislation is to ensure not just a theoretically available recourse within the law, but also a means of social re-introduction of the Scheduled community into the Indian social mainstream. Although current data reveals that individuals are largely charged with offences under the Act, cases against large multinational corporations, which are often in a position of undue financial advantage, have not taken place to date. The recent case brought against Coca Cola, then, can be seen as a landmark move to initiate a non-bailable criminal proceeding against senior members of the company.
According to the file registered at the Meenakshipuram police station, a prima facie case of ‘willful pollution’ in the water sources of Eravalas has been brought against the top brass of the Company’s Plachimada unit. After the closure of the operating unit in 2004, a State-appointed High Level Committee had estimated environmental damages at 21.6 Billion Rupees that had been caused due to the activities of Coca-Cola in the area. As a natural consequence of the pollution caused by Coca-Cola, a drastic shortage of essential water supplies in the area was observed, and it is this which is the focus of the prosecution’s prima facie case.
It is interesting to note that while proceedings for environmental damages could have been initiated (but have not) either at the National Green Tribunal or at the Kerala High Court under various environmental protection statutes, they have instead been initiated instead under the Atrocities Act. Naturally therefore, the focus of the prosecution in these set of facts is that Coca-Cola willfully polluted, or took the liberty of doing so in a targeted manner, in a Scheduled community dominated village.Provided the case against Coca Cola ends in conviction, it will set a welcome trend in holding large corporate houses, with enough financial resources to form a politico-business link detrimental to the effective realisation of social welfare legislations, liable for caste discriminatory activities.