Sunday, January 14, 2007

Of 'small-L' leadership

Today's scribble is to honor Mayilamma. She passed away a couple of days ago.

The name doesn't ring a bell if one is not from Kerala. But in Kerala, she is known as the Dalit woman who made the multi-billion dollar Coke empire bow down on its knees.

Mayilamma lived in a rural place called Plachimada where Coke started one of its manufacturing plants. Which was fine, except for the fact that the factory needed to bottle 85 truckloads of Coke everyday. And that needed a lot of water.

All this water was being pumped up from the available earthwater, which left hardly anything for agriculture and drinking purposes. In return, the factory pumped out huge amounts of carcinogens into the soil, which polluted whatever little water was available.

Mayilamma was one of the residents impacted. She decided to do something about the health hazard and got people of her village together to protest against Coke's misdoings. What made it unique was that this woman had no education and no support from any political party.

But she did have one thing (and lots of it) - tenacity. Coke being Coke ignored her protests and the strike in front of the factory. Police was sent to beat up the crowds. But with true commitment to their purpose, the locals led by Mayilamma persisted.

By now Mayilamma was news. Her unique struggle caught the attention of BBC TV. People from UK came over and performed tests on the water in Mayilamma's well. The carcinogen level was found to be fatal.

To cut a long story short, the government (that too the Kerala governnment, one of the sleepiest on the planet) interfered after almost five years of her protest. And the Coke factory had to be shut down. It was the first time in its history that Coke had to shut down operations due to local protest.

Quite like David Vs Goliath.

Later on, the judiciary was well-'oiled' and the factory did resume operations, albeit with a strict warning and processes in place to not pollute the environment. The irony is that Mayilamma died partly due to the overdose of poison that Coke gave her for free in the water she was drinking everyday.

To me, Mayilamma symbolizes the real leader who knows what is right and moves heaven and earth to achieve it. She found a cause greater than herself, and gave her life for it. In fact, the lady was so publicity-shy that there is not even a decent picture of her on the internet.

I salute the un-dying conviction and persistence which got her the victory that she so deserved.

But then, who needs pictures when memories are deeply etched in the hearts of the many hundreds of families she saved ? Those never die.

1 comment:

pri said...

very true.. i am sure she will be well remembered by all those, whose life changed a great deal because of her strong leadership. May there be more Mayilammas in our sleepy Kerala!
But it is an unfortunate fact that her last days were quite miserable, thanks to the major skin ailment that had taken their toll on her frail body; but more because of the back-stabbing she had to endure from her own co-workers!
But she single handedly put Placimada on the global map. I am sure Coco cola will never forget that Lady.