Category Archives: News on Related Issues

News articles, blog posts, and press releases on related issues and like-minded campaigns, including others fighting against Dow Chemical and industrial pollution.

"Clean is a relative word", says Indian Pepsi chief

CLEAN IS A RELATIVE WORD

By: Anil Thakraney
August 17, 2003

It’s one war they aren’t fighting with each other. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola – who between them enjoy a whopping $1.2 billion market in India, selling about 6.5 billion bottles annually – have been hit with a frightening report that questions the purity of their contents.

On one side are allegations, counter allegations, lawsuits, blinding scientific data and a plethora of confusing norms. And on the other, the enormously worried mom, whose son loads his water bottle with Pepsi.

To gauge what’s going on in this unusual cola war, let’s get up-close with Rajeev Bakshi, PepsiCo’s chairman, South Asia. Bakshi passed out from St Stephen’s in 1976, followed by IIM-B in 1979. His previous assignments have been GM – sales and marketing with Lakme, and MD, Cadbury India.

I meet the much-admired suit at his lush farmhouse in Delhi. It’s August 15. But Bakshi is seeking another form of freedom: liberation from the damning charges.

In this interview, are you representing Pepsi, or both, Coke and Pepsi?

As of now, I am speaking from the category’s point of view, but more specifically, Pepsi.

What’s the next step? Defamation case against the CSE?

We are going ahead with the process of clearing our name in a step-by-step manner. When we went to court, we made an above-board and well-intentioned plea to the judge. The plea was based on scientific grounds. We said we have been wronged… there has been a report that has been put up in the public domain, and that report has a problem. That, we are meeting the WHO standards, we are meeting the Indian law by a far margin. That, this report is alleging we are not meeting the EU standards, which is a new benchmark, and which is never measured across the world for soft drinks. Still, we said we’d contest that as well. Because we believe their testing methodology itself is faulty. That methodology is actually used for testing water, not soft drinks. And two, there are discrepancies in their report.

Except that the High Court dismissed your plea. So you must be disappointed.

No. Our first strategy was that given that there is a discrepancy, we asked the judge if this report can be suppressed. While arguing this with the judge, we withdrew that particular plea, because it was already in the public domain… the judge said it was not a key issue.

If you had to withdraw, why did you enter the plea in the first instance?

It is the way of putting the entire case in a court. Basically, our lawyers said we had to do it in three steps. One, ask to withdraw the complaint, because it’s wrong. Two, request the judge to get an independent scientific body to enquire into the issue, and then, come to a conclusion as to what this is all about. And the third step: let an independent report come out, and at that point of time, we reserve the right to press charges, or whatever else, depending on the outcome. We felt it was unwise for us to press charges upfront. Because that would have meant prejudging the entire issue.

Don’t you think asking the courts for suppression of the report is unethical? It is a public interest report, after all. Isn’t this a case of SLAPPing? (In the US, this controversial practice is termed, ‘Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation’.)

What the SLAPP says is, if anybody makes an allegation like this in America, ‘withdraw it from the public domain, have a private conversation, and then arrive at a judgement’. Since there is no law to that effect out here, we are saying, ‘the report is wrong, so can they withdraw the report itself’.

Except that the plea got dismissed. What is your next step?

As far as we are concerned, the health ministry is looking into the matter. The judge has ordered an independent evaluation. It’s not clear to me what the modus operandi of that is. So we have to wait for that to happen.

Do you believe the CSE has a hidden agenda against Coke and Pepsi?

As far as I am concerned, I am taking everything at face value. So, in public, I am not going into what their motivations could be.

Do you think if you were a desi company, this may not have happened?

My only problem as far as the CSE is concerned, is the process.

I am talking of the intent.

I cannot comment on that.

But can you rule out evil intent?

(Pause.) At this stage, I don’t know. It could be either way, but I don’t know. Once the results come out, I guess all will get cleared.

Talking of technique… during the same tests, they did also check the American samples… and they emerged fine.

Look, I am well within the law, even as per the results declared by them. I am also well within WHO standards.

The study indicates you have contamination that, for Pepsi, is as high as 35 times the EU norms.

That’s comparison with the water norms of EU. There are no standards for pesticides in soft drinks anywhere in the world. It is assumed that the water you use will have this sort of pesticides. Even if I assume that figure to be correct, though that figure has been blown out of proportion, if I tell you the number for juices, you will jump! But if you look at the norms we have been following till January 2003, which are the US standards, the WHO standards, and the BIS standards, we are well within that. Suddenly if you change the goalpost, and the reference of comparison, then you have to respond to that. I am saying, I am absolutely safe, and within the norms, even as per their report, which I am contesting.

So why aren’t you following the EU norms?

Very honestly, till January this year, we have been following the BIS norms, and the US norms, for water. Suddenly, in January, came a report from the same organisation, which said ‘these people are 1.5 times out of EU norms’. So we said, “Oh, what’s this benchmark now?” That process had not been mandated yet. Then when we tested internally, we found we anyway follow the EU norms, by default.

How can you not be aware of the EU norms… you are a global company operating across the world?

But internationally the specification is American norms, which we thought was good enough, and more than safe.

So then how come the American samples tested clean?

Clean is a relative word.

Relative? We have been given the exact degree of contamination and the names of contaminants.

Point is, you will find pesticides in 100 per cent of the products that you eat or drink. The question is, what is the safe amount?

And yours is 35 times higher!

You are saying that figure is a big deal? Let me give you other figures. In the EU, on milk, the overall pesticides standard is 7,000 times over what it is for water! And they consider this safe! So this 35 times is a marketing figure… it won’t impact your health at all. Even if you take their report to be correct, it’s one-sixth of the Indian legal norm.

Do you think it’s the fault of our water in India…. that it sucks?

I think we need to lay this water thing to rest. I have checked the raw water, across all my plants, and except for four plants, it’s within the EU standards even when it emerges from the earth. The reason could also be that we locate our plants quite carefully. Speaking in general, there is no generic data on pesticides in ground water.

Next. What percentage of Pepsi’s consumers are minors?

About 30 per cent.

Why should worried parents believe you, not CSE? What would you like to say to them?

First, the emotional reason. We have been around for many years, we operate in many countries, we have been offering quality products, so it is very difficult to imagine we’d offer substandard products. Two, even if you think that these people have done their work rightly, with honesty, and we take their figures at face value, I can tell your readers that this level of pesticides is perfectly safe. It is still not harmful. Because, if you take the EU standard for water, and compare it with the Indian standard for milk, the DDT in milk is twelve-and-a-half thousand times over the EU standard.

So if it’s okay to drink the colas, despite the CSE findings, why are you contesting their report?

Because there is a public perception that has been created, through damaging press reports, which has made us look very irresponsible. A public perception has been created that this ’35 times’ is bad, and I am saying, even if it’s correct, it’s okay. You won’t get cancer. Still, we are contesting the report, and saying we are much safer than that.

Nothing will happen to the kids over a period of time?

No way!

The big question. Suppose the study ordered by the health ministry, using the technique that you believe in, vindicates the CSE’s findings, what will you do?

(Long pause) It’s a hypothetical question. So we’ll take it as it comes. However, as far as tightening of processes goes, it’s an inward process. So if that happens, we’ll tighten our standards even more.

Next. A number of people were disappointed at yours and Sanjeev Gupta’s [boss of Coca Cola] reaction to the study. There was no show of concern at all. Rather, you were busy threatening legal action.

I didn’t talk of legal action.

Of course you did… we saw it on TV.

Sanjeev Gupta said it on his own volition, I didn’t.

Yeah, but that evening, both of you were on the same side of the fence.

We were on the same dais. And giving out own points of view.

Why didn’t you even attempt to reassure nervous parents? Promise them that you will get to the bottom of this issue.

When the water controversy broke out earlier this year, our response was precisely what you are saying. We came out with a very defensive response at that time. We said, ‘we are meeting the norms, still, let’s study this and get back to you’. We went back to the media after 15 days, and they refused to publish it. Because the story was dead by then. Now, after we’ve been had once, when our part of the story never came across, and because we were confident about our data, we went to the public with it.

People out there don’t understand tests and techniques… they are worried parents, looking for assurance.

Yeah, but 24 hours later, I would have had to come back to the same point: the data. The stance would have still been aggressive. Because the decibel level of the attack was very high. It was almost a personal attack.

Have you registered a drop in sales since August 5?

Yes, sales have been affected.

How much?

I cannot reveal the figures. (See this report.)

How did your kids react when they heard the CSE story?

(Slight pause.) They asked me if this was correct, and I said ‘no’. They believed it.

They still drink Pepsi?

The elder one drinks Diet Pepsi, the younger one is slightly more fussy.

She drinks Coke?

(Laughs.)

Rajeev has every reason to laugh. Later, at a papdi-chaat joint in Dilli’s Bengali Market, I spot a Hindu Undivided Family devouring gallons of Pepsi. I ask the patriarch if he isn’t worried. Ratan Lal Khurana says he sure is, but he can’t help it. “Ki karen. Bachiano gussa chadega.” [What to do? The kids will get angry.]

Tests show Pepsi, Coke to be contamined with poisons

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Coca Cola scandal deepens, killings begin

As published in The Statesman

12 August 2003
HEAT ON COLD DRINKS

By ARJUN SEN
“THE Coca-Cola company exists to benefit and refresh everyone it touches,” says the home page of the world’s largest soft drink company’s website. But many in India, and in the 199 other countries that Coke is sold in, are finding out the truth the hard way.

Coke has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons; the latest being the 5 August report of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi. A CSE test found 12 soft-drink brands of Coke and its global rival Pepsi contained pesticides and insecticides in excess of the European Economic Commission’s limit. The Parliament’s immediate reaction: ban on the brands on its premises.

On 8 August, a West Bengal government report said sludge and liquid effluents from Coke’s plants at Dankuni, Taratala and Jalpaiguri and Pepsi’s at Narendrapur contained toxic metals and the carcinogen cadmium.

On 6 August, Kerala State Pollution Control Board had confirmed that Coke’s bottling plant had indeed been polluting the groundwater and agricultural land in and around its Palakkad plant.

Six months ago, CSE tests had found pesticides in leading packaged water brands, including those produced by Coke and Pepsi.

These bombshells followed media reports in the UK and in India of the scorching and environmentally disastrous impact of Coke’s operations in several regions in India; of allegedly rigging marketing tests in the USA and using slush funds to boost equipment sales; of reportedly
hiring Right-wing death squads to eliminate trade union organisers in Columbia and Guatemala; of causing environmental damage in Panama and of neglecting health problems of its employees in Africa.

While reports of pesticides’ and insecticides’ presence in Coke and Pepsi may now deter consumers from enjoying the soft-drinks, people living in and around Coke’s bottling plants in India have been feeling the heat in a different way. In Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, people have been protesting against Coke’s bottling plants because they’ve depleted groundwater level and damaged the environment.

Villagers of Palakkad’s Plachimada village in Kerala had been agitating against Coke’s bottling plant for several months but their plight drew global attention only recently after BBC Radio 4’s Face The Facts expose. Presenter John Waite visited Coke’s Plachimada plant after villagers complained of falling groundwater level in the area after Coke had started drawing it in huge quantities. Waite carried the samples of water and wastes sold by Coke as soil conditioner (but used by local farmers as fertiliser) back to the UK, where laboratory tests showed that they contained dangerous levels of cadmium. Tests at University of Exeter too showed the material was useless as a fertiliser and contained a number of toxic metals, including lead.

But the company has been denying any wrongdoing. Coke vice-president in India Sunil Gupta told the BBC that the fertiliser didn’t pose any risk. “We have scientific evidence to prove it is absolutely safe and we have never had any complaints.”

But Plachimada’s villagers have a different story to tell. Three years ago, the little patch of land in the green, picturesque rolling hills of Palakkad yielded 50 sacks of rice and 1,500 coconuts a year. It provided work for dozens of labourers. Then Coke arrived and built a 40-acre bottling plant nearby. In his last harvest, Shahul Hameed, owner of a small holding, could manage only five sacks of rice and just 200 coconuts. His irrigation wells have run dry, thanks to Coke drawing up to 1.5 million litres of water daily through its deep wells to bottle Coke, Fanta, Sprite and the drink the locals call, without irony, ”Thumbs-Up”.

But the cruellest twist is that while the plant bottles a mineral water, local people – who can never afford it – are now being forced to walk up to 10 kilometre twice a day for a pot of drinking water. The turbid, brackish water that remains at the bottom of their wells contains too high a level of dissolved salts to drink, cook with or even wash in.

The disruption in life because of depletion of groundwater and contamination by pollutants have forced villagers to picket the factory for the past 470 odd days. Over 300 people have been held for demonstrating against Coke and blackening its hoardings.

On 7 April, the Perumatty panchayat revoked the factory’s licence to alleviate the villagers’ sufferings despite losing almost half of its annual income of Rs 7,00,000. But Coke’s lawyers got the suspension order revoked by appealing to the local self-government department.

Coke could operate its plant till 6 August – but on that day KPCB made its report public, confirming the existence of carcinogenic contaminants in the waste. Now, the government has postponed the hearing, saying it’s “necessary to… (get) SPCB’s report” confirmed.

This is actually a David and Goliath battle: some of the world’s poorest people versus a multinational giant. The Centre classifies many of the suffering villagers as primitive tribals or Dalits. Few took notice when the villagers first began complaining of the changes in the quantity and quality of well water. But their complaints mounted, for they not only lost their water but, with the dried-out farms closing, also their jobs. A reasonable number of crippled labourers would be 10,000.

Coke, of course, denies responsibility for all this, and it has the support the local authorities; they argue that the company creates jobs. Politicians even threatened the agitationists with “dire consequences” if they didn’t stop.

Though Coke claims to have carried out the mandatory Environment Impact Assessment report before setting up the plant, none so far has seen the report. Waite’s repeated requests to the company to produce a copy of the report met with failure.

In UP, sustained protests against Coke have prompted the Central Pollution Control Board to initiate a probe into the pollution being caused allegedly by Bharat Coca-Cola Bottling North East Private Ltd – a bottling arm of Coke – in Mehdiganj, 20 km from Varanasi. Trouble started in early May when a court found the firm guilty of not paying land revenue worth more than Rs 15 lakh. An equal amount of penalty – under Section 47 (A) of the Indian Stamps Act – has also been imposed on the company. The case, filed in April 2001 by the UP government, was the outcome of lobbying by protesting local residents. They allege the plant has been discharging hazardous wastes and heavy consumption of groundwater has depleted the water level, from 15 feet to 40 feet. Result: severe drinking water scarcity.

In Maharashtra, villagers of Kudus in Thane district now have to travel long distances in search of water because it has dried up, thanks to Coke. Villagers have began questioning the subsidised water, land and tax breaks that Coke gets from the state, only to leave them more thirsty. A man was detained for protesting against Coke’s pipeline, built to carry water from a river to its plant.

In Tamil Nadu, more than 7,000 people gathered in Sivaganga recently to protest against a proposed Coke plant.

Protests are also building up against the sale of major Cauvery tributary Bhavani by Tamil Nadu government to Poonam Beverages for bottling Coke’s packaged water, Kinley. Despite the state facing drought conditions, the government effected the sale. At places the ground water level is beyond reach resulting in water riots and even killings.

In Rajasthan, villagers of Kala Dera near Jaipur have been protesting against the fall in the groundwater level after a Coke plant started drawing water. After the firm set up a bottling plant, the area’s wells and ponds dried up. ”The water level has fallen by more than 150 feet in the area . . . ,” said a villager. Locals have submitted a memorandum to the chief minister, demanding the plant be shifted.

But the unfazed $-20-billion, Atlanta-based soft drink giant claims “local communities have welcomed our business as a good corporate neighbour.” But this should not come as a surprise, for Coke is accustomed to having its way with governments. Under the rules of entry into India, Coke was to divest 49 per cent of its equity stake within five years. But now the government seems to have given in to the soft drink giant’s pressure; it’s on the verge of changing its
policy to suit Coke’s interest. Will Indian investors own 49 per cent of Coke’s operations in India, but have no vote whatsoever?

Remember Enron! In Coke’s case too, the US government played a significant role. US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill wrote to Prime Minister’s principal secretary Brajesh Mishra: “I would like to bring to your attention, and seek your help in resolving, a potentially serious investment problem of some significance to both our countries. The case involves Coca-Cola, one of the largest single foreign investors in India.”

But around the world, Coke has increasingly become the target of local communities’ ire around because of its disregard for man and his environment. The world’s most well recognised brand name’s Latin American bottler is facing trial for allegedly hiring Right-wing paramilitary forces (death squads) to kill and intimidate trade union organisers, especially from SINALTRAINAL. The suit has been brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, that allows corporations to be sued in the USA for crimes committed overseas.

Holding Coke responsible for the harms it causes is nothing new. In May 2003, Coca-Cola de Panama was fined US $300,000 for polluting Matasnillo river in that country.

Coke may not go the Enron way – for it is not based on assumptions and speculation. But both share some uncanny similarities: Enron and Coke top the US foreign direct investment (FDI) list in India. Enron’s Indian operations (Dabhol Power Corporation, joint venture with Bechtel and General Electric and others) was the largest single FDI in India and became the target of activists across the country because of various irregularities. Enron was forced to shut down its Indian operations long before the financial scandal broke out in the USA and brought the entire company down.

The company that started life in 1886 as the result of a search for a headache remedy may soon join Enron if it fails to stop giving people more headaches than it can cure.

(The author is former News Editor of The Economic Times.)

The history of Coca Cola

Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine. Now it just contains chlorpyrifos, malathion, DDT etc etc (at least in India)

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Indian soft drinks poisoned by Dow and friends

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India reported on August 5, 2003 that pesticides had been found in twelve brands of Indian soft drinks. CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML) analyzed samples of bottled soft drinks for 16 organochlorine pesticides, 12 organophosphorus pesticides and 4 synthetic pyrethroides, all of which are used extensively in India.

The soft drink brands tested were Blue Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Diet Pepsi, Fanta, Limca, Mirinda Orange, Mirinda Lemon, Mountain Dew, Pepsi, Sprite, Thums Up and 7-Up.

Lindane, an organochlorine pesticide applied to seeds before planting and used pharmaceutically to treat lice and scabies, was found in every brand of soft drink tested. Lindane persists in the environment, contaminates surface and ground water and accumulates in fat tissues. Highest concentrations of lindane found by PML were 0.0042 mg/L, or 42 times the European Economic Commission (EEC) standard for drinking water. For all twelve brands, lindane concentrations averaged 21 times the EEC standard. The organophosphate pesticide DDT and its metabolites (DDD and DDE) were detected in 81% of the samples tested.

Average DDT and metabolite concentrations were 15 times European limits.

Chlorophyrifos, a neurotoxin and a special risk to pregnant women, was also found in all of the samples, with average concentrations 42 times the EEC standard. Malathion was detected in 97% of the samples, highest in a Mirinda Lemon sample at 196 times the European standard.

Malathion detected in Coca-Cola was 137 times greater than EEC drinking water standards. In February 2003, the CSE tested bottled drinking water and also found pesticides in 17 different Indian labels. The same laboratory detected lindane DDT, malathion and chlorpyrifos in all of the bottled water samples tested, except for Evian, which is imported.

As a result of that report, the Indian government announced in July that new standards for pesticide residues in bottled water will go into effect in January 2004.

Pepsi and Coca Cola, multinational companies based in the U.S., each have large shares of the Indian bottled soft drink market. Coca-Cola and Pepsi officials in India immediately disputed CSE’s soft drink findings and called for a new round of laboratory testing. Pepsi appealed to the Indian courts to stop publication of the CSE report, calling the research methods “suspect.”

On August 12, 2003 an Indian court ordered the federal government to test Pepsi samples for pesticides, and the Delhi High Court asked the government to develop new and tougher standards for pesticide contaminants in soft drinks. Meanwhile, sales of bottled soft drinks in India have plummeted, and several states in India have moved to test soft drinks, with one state refusing to allow Pepsi and Coke products to be shipped from bottling plants until they were tested as a “precautionary measure.”

In the U.S. and Europe, legally enforceable standards regulate water used in bottled drinks, however Indian laws currently exclude bottled soft drinks and water from regulations concerning pesticides in food. CSE says that soft drink manufacturers and the bottled water industry in India use large quantities of ground water, which has become increasingly contaminated as levels have dropped dramatically in many parts of the country.

CSE maintains that “pesticides are in manufactured consumables because there are pesticides in the ‘raw water’ used. There are pesticides in the source water because there are pesticides being blatantly used in fields. Thus any policy to provide consumers in India with quality consumables can do nothing until it takes into account these deadly chemicals.”

Sources: Colanisation’s Dirty Dozen, Bottled Water Norms Notified, Down to Earth, Science and Environment on-line, Hindu Business Line, August 5, 2003>

Pepsi, Coke soft drinks contain pesticides: CSE, Pepsi to be Tested for Toxins in India, Reuters, August 12, 2003, CSE Press Release, August 13, 2003.

Contact: Centre for Science and the Environment, 41, Tughlakabad Institutional Area, New Delhi-110062, India, phone (91 011) 260-66854, 260-59810, 299-55410, 299-55781, 299-56394; fax (91 011) 299-55879; email: cse@cseindia.org, http://www.cseindia.org

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From Arundhati Roy To Digvijay Singh

LETTER FROM ARUNDHATI ROY TO DIGVIJAY SINGH, CHIEF MINISTER OF MADHYA PRADESH
Fax Number: 0755 – 540501
To
The Chief Minister
Government of Madhya Pradesh
Bhopal 462004
June 15th 2002
Dear Mr Digvijay Singh
Thank you for your letter.
I am a little puzzled and embarrassed that you chose to write to me and not to those who have been petitioning you for your attention for the past 25 days. Today is the 26th day of the hunger fast of the four NBA activists demanding rehabilitation for those who are being displaced by the Maan dam. Two days ago you tried to arrest them. They escaped and are now underground. This correspondence takes place in the shadow of their death or permanent debilitation.
First, I would like to clarify in no uncertain terms that I am not a member of the NBA. I do not represent the Andolan, I cannot and do not wish to negotiate on its behalf. I am merely someone who has taken the trouble to find out what is actually happening on the ground (as opposed to on paper) in the Narmada Valley. And frankly, the more I learn, the more appalled I am.
The facts in your letter are incorrect and misleading. I have passed your letter on to Dr Nandini Sundar who was a member of the Tribunal headed by Justice G.G. Loney which published a report on the Maan project. I’m enclosing her point by point reply. Further to what I have already written, I have only a few general points to make.
You say it is not government policy to buy land and “allot” it to adivasi people. But this is not true. Under Section 3.2 (a) and (b) in the MP rehabilitation Policy for the Narmada valley, it is exactly what the government is supposed to do.
Your letter suggests that everything is as it should be – that the government has dealt fairly and generously with the people who are to be displaced. This is not the case. I have traveled to the Maan villages. I have spoken to people. I was told about the outrageous manner in which cash compensation was distributed. It is illegal even according to your own policy to distribute cash compensation like this.
It is simply not true that people were given the choice between land for land and cash. Most people said they were made to feel that they could take cash (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘compensation’) or get nothing at all. Many said they took cash because they were threatened with legal action and forced eviction. Many others did so for the simple reason that they were not aware of their rights – the Narmada Bachao Andolan was not active in the area at the time.
The stark fact is that displaced people cannot buy land with the special rehabilitation grant given by the government because land is too expensive. It is the government’s responsibility to make up the difference between the value of the land to be purchased and the cash that was illegally distributed. The people, now aware of their entitlement, have offered to return every paisa they have received from the government, in return for land.
Their demands, like the demands of the hundreds of thousands of others, have been ignored. Paltry cash ‘compensation’ to subsistence farmers, most of whom are already neck deep in debt to money lenders, is only a short detour on the road to destitution and penury. We all know that.
Now your government has bulldozed buildings, destroyed hand-pumps in an effort to forcibly evict people from their homes. This was the immediate provocation for the NBA’s indefinite hunger fast. Even now there appears to be no accurate account of how many families will be affected.
In the light of all this, your government’s much-publicized Dalit Agenda – like its rehabilitation policy for displaced people- is just a meaningless piece of paper. Hundreds of thousands of Dalits and Adivasis have been and will continue to be displaced without rehabilitation by the 29 dams (in various stages of completion) that you have planned on the Narmada.
To respect the human rights of the ‘oustees’ of one dam would put your government in the untenable position of having set a precedent for respecting human rights for the rest. And this, I can imagine is not a moral problem so much as a logistical one.
Your government has to choose between implementing its policies and protecting human rights. Obviously, it has chosen to proceed with its elaborate project of social engineering, banking on the fact that public opinion will, as it always does, sink into the bewildering swamp that stretches between what governments say and what they do.
In effect, the fragile communities of Dalits and adivasis which your ‘Bhopal Document’ claims to protect, are being systematically, mercilessly crushed. Unfortunately, we are driven to have this public conversation under terrifying circumstances, when every hour and every day pushes those on fast into a more critical stage.
And lest you misunderstand, let me say that while I do not support or encourage the idea of a 22year old adivasi girl starving herself to death to make her voice heard, I completely understand the urgency of her situation and am at a loss for words when she says to me “What else can I do?” I’d like to point her question to you – what else can she do? What else can she do when she and her community stand to lose everything they ever had?
When I spoke to Ram Kuar, I thought I should tell her that even if she didn’t die, to go so long without food might make her an invalid for life.
She replied ,”the government is stealing all our future meals away from all of us. If I stop eating now, perhaps we will be heard. Perhaps the rest of us will be saved.”
The simple fact is that if there was no problem, why would the people be so agitated? Why on earth would young Ram Kuar be risking her life to demand justice? There can be no greater insult to someone who is doing that than suggesting they are doing it for some base motive or for no real reason.
In your letter you say that ‘government buildings’ are being demolished so that door and window frames are re-cycled and used elsewhere. You say nothing about forcibly sealing hand-pumps and destroying water sources, exposing people and cattle to unbearable thirst at the height of summer. Unfortunately, people cannot be re-cycled like door and window frames.
Finally, in what is perhaps the most disturbing part of your letter, you suggest that adivasi people on a fast unto death, demanding their rights to life, to livelihood, to water are “harming the interests of the tribal community”. What could you possibly mean by that?
It really saddens me to have to write this letter to you. Truly. Because you’re a good Chief Minister on paper – can you not match that with some real re-thinking, some real action on the ground?
Arundhati Roy

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