Lucknow, January 3, 2014: Even two weeks after being served a notice by the Uttar Pradesh administration, beverage giant Coca Cola is yet to return the gram panchayat land it had “illegally” encroached upon at its bottling plant in Varanasi.
The local administration issued the company a week’s ultimatum on December 17 to return 19 bissas (roughly 1 bigha) of land at its bottling plant in Mehdiganj, 20 km from Varanasi.
The district administration had intervened when the tehsildar failed to act against the company despite regular complaints by the affected farmers, who claim that the company illegally encroached upon the gram sabha land, in 1999 and 2011.
The administration’s notice brought relief to farmers in Mehdiganj who have agitated against the company for over a decade. However, after two weeks of administrative inaction, locals are agitated by the holdup in transfer of land into their possession.
“This is complete mockery of the law,” says social activist Nandlal Master, who has led a local movement against the bottling plant under the NGO Lok Samiti.
“The callousness of the company and the administration shows what big companies think of the law. The administration is busy dismantling roadside business units and displacing poor hawkers from the ghats in Varanasi saying that they dirty the ghats. But when it comes to the big business companies, who are encroaching farmers’ land for business, it fails to act. It means that the State is working under the pressure of the company or some persons with motives are creating hurdles.”
Referring to a similar case in 2006-07, Mr Nandlal said the company had then appealed in a higher court contending that their arguments were not heard. “This led to a stay on the order. But this time the administration has itself issued the notice after hearing both parties,” he says.
Coca Cola spokesperson Kalyan Ranjan dismissed allegations that the company had illegally encroached upon the panchayat land. The company has filed a writ petition challenging the order.
“We don’t agree with the view that the land was encroached upon by us. We have purchased the land and have documents to prove it. So we are open to re-measurement by the State.”
Sources within the company told The Hindu that the company was trying to “buy time” and was looking for “alternate land, which it would hand over to the gram panchayat, to avoid the demolition of its unit.” Sources in the local administration said that the company refused to accept the notice.
Mr. Nandlal dismissed the company’s claims and said that the company should give up the gram sabha land it had occupied. “They bought land from farmers, we are not worried about that. But they have encroached upon common property resources of the gram sabha like roads, canal for irrigation and other land.”
Mr. Nandlal, who says he will pursue the matter to its end, has written to the Chief Secretary requesting that action be taken on the notice without any delay.
Rajatalab Tehsildar Bimal Kumar Dubey, under whose jurisdiction the matter now falls after recent administrative re-shuffling, said the State had not provided enough forces or vehicles for them to carry out the transfer of land. “We expect to have the resources ready by Monday,” he said.