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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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