Thousands in human chain protests at Coke, Pepsi plants in India

MANDIDEEP, BHOPAL (AFP) Jan 20, 2005

Thousands of students and farmers on Thursday surrounded Pepsi and Coca-Cola factories in a “Quit India” campaign, accusing the US giants of selling soft drinks laced with pesticides.

They lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in a five-kilometre (three-mile) chain around a Pepsi bottling plant at this central Indian township, an AFP correspondent reported.

The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), which organised the protests, said nearly 100,000 people targeted more than 80 soft drink plants across India.

Villagers and onlookers joined in at Mandideep as several thousand protestors carried banners demanding the closure of both companies in India.

“The factories must close down as they are not only are guilty of uncertain standards in their drinks but they are also depleting groundwater,” said protester Vinay Sagar.

“We are very worried by the continuous degradation which the company has caused to the groundwater in the region,” said Sagar, saying Pepsi daily extracts 200,000 litres (40,000 gallons) of ground water from the parched region.

Mandideep is some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the central Indian city of Bhopal, which 20 years ago was devastated by the world’s deadliest industrial disaster when toxic gas leaked from a Union Carbide pesticides plant killing thousands.

Most of the protestors then moved to Pilukhedi, some 40 kilometresmiles) the other side of Bhopal, where they surrounded a Coca-Cola factory — one of the biggest bottling plants in the country.

RFSTE reported similar protests at Pepsi and Coke plants in cities such as Bombay, capital of western Maharastra state, But a Pepsi spokeswoman said about 20 schoolchildren turned up at one of the company’s 37 plants in western India.

In December the Supreme Court upheld a lower court judgement ordering Pepsi and Coca-Cola to print warnings on their bottles in India that the drinks may contain pesticide residues.

The US firms deny their drinks pose health hazards.

The cola rivals, which account for 99 percent of India’s huge soft drinks market, have joined forces in the two-year legal battle that rumbles on.

Their lawyers said use of pesticides in agriculture resulted in trace residues in sugar.

The US drinks manufacturers are not only under fire over pesticide residues but also over allegations they are draining areas of groundwater.

Attempts to close a Coca-Cola plant in drought-hit Plachimada village in southern Kerala state have become an environmental cause celebre.

Environmentalists charge it is extracting groundwater and parching the region where farmers have been badly hit, but the companies say they use a miniscule amount of water.

The “Quit India” slogan used by the environmentalists was coined by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942 during the struggle against British colonial rule.

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