"The sons of the soil have every right over our air and water and land.
But after Coca-Cola came here
my land has become a desert and we have become beggars."
SAVE WATER, BOYCOTT COKE
The Coca-Cola plant next to his land used deep-bore wells
to extract about 1,500,000 litres of water a day
as it churned out Coke, Fanta, and a popular brand of bottled water.
As well as a lack of water the plant's bio-solid waste,
which is supplied to farmers as a fertiliser,
contains toxic metals such as cadmium and lead.
Coke has a bottler of a headache in India
Mark Williams, Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 17, 2005
Impoverished villagers and the world's most recognised brand are in a bitter dispute over access to water sources , writes Mark Williams. Legal battles have rarely appeared as lopsided as the stoush between Coca-Cola and the villagers of southern India. By the end of the month, a court in the southern Indian state of Kerala is due to decide whether villagers from the bottom of the social hierarchy have the right to deny water to the world's most omnipotent commercial brand.
The judgement will mark the latest skirmish in a bitter dispute between Coke and several rural communities that accuse it of parching and polluting their villages - charges the company rejects. As the protests grew, farmers and anti-globalisation activists united to launch a modern-day "Quit India" campaign against the soft drinks giant, appropriating the name of Mahatma Gandhi's 1942 call for independence from British rule. Coke's great rival, Pepsi, has been heavily criticised, too, but has failed to arouse anywhere near as much anger.
A decision in favour of the villagers would be a major blow to the multinational. While Coke says it would appeal such a verdict, the biggest and most technologically advanced Coke plant in India could be closed for good. Such a ruling would provide a boost to a movement seeking to empower India's most vulnerable people in the face of a rapidly spreading corporate culture. "These companies ... are destroying our social fabric," says environmentalist Vandana Shiva. "If the Kerala court supports the villagers' fight for justice, that fight will be replicated across India. The subversion of basic rights, like those over water, by big companies will be stalled."
The Coke plant at the centre of the confrontation sits idle amid paddy fields and coconut groves in the village of Plachimada. Coke's Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, was forced to shut the operation in December 2003 after the high court in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, upheld the right of the village council, or panchayat, to protect local farmers by denying the company access to groundwater. The farmers, mainly tribal people known as Adivasis, who have been marginalised by a still-pervasive caste system, say their lives were ruined by Coke's arrival. Villagers have been demonstrating outside the plant's gates for more than 1000 days and vow to continue until Coke packs its bags.
Sitting under his mango trees, P.V. Shahulhameed, 65, says he has little hope of a decent crop from the 1.2 hectare plot he is cultivating with peanuts, tomatoes and chillies. Rather, he will have to rely on a son's daily labour on a neighbouring farm for survival, as his open wells are almost dry. The Coca-Cola plant next to his land used deep-bore wells to extract about 500,000 litres of water a day, by the company's admission, as it churned out Coke, Fanta, and a popular brand of bottled water, Kinley. Activists claim the quantity it used may have been as much as three times higher.
"The sons of the soil have every right over our air and water and land," Shahulhameed says. "But after Coca-Cola came here my land has become a desert and we have become beggars." As well as a lack of water - which Coke blames on three years of very poor monsoons - the villagers of Plachimada say the plant's bio-solid waste, which is supplied to farmers as a fertiliser, contains toxic metals such as cadmium and lead that lead to skin disorders. Analyses by the state's pollution control board and other independent groups have found heavy metals, but not at a level that warrants the material being labelled hazardous waste. Coke now stores its by-products within the plant, but locals say it has leached into the soil, contaminating drinking water.
"Unless we can get an agreement with the panchayat that says they accept what we are doing, I don't see any reason why we would reopen that plant," says Coca-Cola Asia's spokesman, David Cox. In a further blow to Coke, a Supreme Court monitoring committee visited Plachimada in August and ordered Coke to retrieve all of its waste from farmers' land and ensure that all those living around the plant had access to clean water. The committee was unconvinced by Coke's assertion that its waste was safe, and reported that since the factory opened groundwater had become unfit for drinking.
No one has offered "any shred of evidence to back up what they are saying", Cox says. As the world's most visible brand, Coke is being demonised by activists to further an anti-globalisation agenda, he says. Indian companies operating near Plachimada draw more water but have not faced similar protests, he says. "We have absolutely no interest in locating a $US25 million plant over a supply of water that's going to run out," he says. India is Coca-Cola's fastest-growing market, expanding last year by 23 per cent.
At the other end of the sub-continent, the water level in farmer Amar Singh Rathor's well is also falling. In three years, the water table below his small holding in the northern village of Mehdiganj, 20 kilometres from the holy Ganges city of Varanasi, has plummeted by just over 18 metres, he says. Many of Mehdiganj's 10,000 people blame a Coca-Cola plant on the edge of the village and say their land and water have been polluted by Coke. "If the Coca-Cola plant isn't closed it will impossible to live here," says fellow villager Shakuntala Devi. The company denies the charges.
On November 24, a protest march outside the Mehdiganj plant turned violent when police beat back villagers attempting to break a cordon to reach Coke property. Organisers say 2000 people - mainly women and youths - took part, although a local journalist put the number at about 800 and Coca-Cola even lower. Up to 200 demonstrators were arrested. The protests, though smaller in scale, have continued ever since.
Coke's Cox says the plants do not have the capacity to cause the damage to water supplies the protesters claim. Dr Bharat Sharma, a Delhi scientist with the International Water Management Institute, agrees. "If an aquifer has good recharge, then the amount of water Coca-Cola is using should not be a problem," he says. C.R. Bijoy, a tribal rights activist for 20 years, says that, even if true, Sharma's statement is no defence. "The fundamental question here is, who has the authority over groundwater?" he says. "We need a devolution of powers. Rights over water have to be linked to the broader struggle of marginalised people. For the tribals here it is a question of survival."
Many of the anti-Coke activists are open about their agenda. "After a decade of liberalisation the poorer people are more marginalised," says Jagriti, a third-generation disciple of Gandhian self-sufficiency who, like other activists, has dropped her family name in an anti-caste gesture. "Small producers have shut down. Every village has suffered." Another Varanasi-based activist, Aflatoon, the grandson of Gandhi's longtime private secretary, Mahadev Desai, quotes the Mahatma: "The world has enough for everyone's needs but not enough for even a single person's greed."
Soft-drink chemicals from can (Bisphenol A seeps into liquid causing cancer & other diseases). MontrealGazette, Dec 18, 2006. Go to POP CAN CHEMICALS CAUSE CANCER
India withdraws Coca-Cola/Pepsi ban (USA businesses threatened investment fallout). BusinessStandard, Dec 16, 2006 Coke has a bottler of a headache in India. Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 17, 2005 THE WATER BARONS Jackie Jura email: firstname.lastname@example.org
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~
India withdraws Coca-Cola/Pepsi ban (USA businesses threatened investment fallout). BusinessStandard, Dec 16, 2006
Coke has a bottler of a headache in India. Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 17, 2005
THE WATER BARONS