Why you shouldn’t go ‘aha’ about your soft drink
It is 15 years since the Coca-Cola bottling plant was permanently closed in Plachimada, a quite village in Kerala, but the said village and its surrounding areas are yet to recover from its excesses. Three decades ago, there were no bore wells in village Plachimada and every family had more than enough water for its needs. Even during the peak of summer, the village used its water resources with care. Things changed when the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd, an Indian subsidiary of the Atlanta-based manufacturer of aerated drinks, set up its factory in a 38-acre plot in Plachimada in 1999. The plant was built on agricultural land which historically belonged to the Eravala tribals. The company would draw up to 1.5 million litres of water daily from 6 bore-wells situated inside the factory compound, as permitted by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board. Reports say, however, that the plant was drawing up to 2 million litres per day in 2000. From the following year, as it began extracting groundwater from the area, Plachimada’s water table fell drastically and toxic waste discharged from the plant smothered the soil. As a result, residents took to the streets to get the MNC off their land and their struggles received global attention in 2003, when a BBC show quoted research from University of Exeter that showed slurry from the plant contained dangerous levels of toxic metals such as cadmium and lead. The waste byproduct was being sold to farmers as fertiliser. “The area’s farming industry has been devastated and jobs, as well as the health of the local people, have been put at risk,” said John Waite, the show’s presenter, as he read out findings by the university’s scientists. The factory was finally closed in 2004. “With every passing year, water scarcity has become acute and our livelihoods are in peril,’’ says Kanniammal, who hails from the Ervala tribal community. Many of the protesters are losing hope, but some still fight on to make the company pay for the damage it caused and to force the government to keep a poll promise it made.
A little away from the closed entrance of the imposing bottling unit stands a dilapidated thatched structure. This was the office from where the Plachimada struggle committee operated for many years. Rights activists Maude Barlow, José Bové and Finland’s former minister Satu Hassi were among those who addressed protestors at the venue during the World Water Conference hosted by the village in 2004. “It was, in fact, a lost battle. The world noticed us when the mighty Coca-Cola decided to close down the unit in the face of our stringent agitation. But successive governments at the state and the centre have created a situation in which none of us would get any compensation from those who plundered our water resources. The governments and political parties seem lethargic about our grievances,’’ says Vilayodi Venugopal, an agricultural worker who became the public face of the agitation. The village, he says, has been fighting against the company’s water exploitation and its effects for 19 years now, but the living standards of people have not changed. “Despite the earlier promise to reintroduce the Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill in the Kerala state Assembly, the government is maintaining a studied silence on our survival-related issues. Those who were once eloquent about our miseries are now doing nothing,” says Venugopal, who is also chairman of the Plachimada Anti Coca-Cola Struggle Committee.
While an expert committee set up by the state government has fixed the compensation amount at Rs 216 crore, the company has not paid anything so far. In 2017, the Supreme Court recorded a submission by the company that it did not intend to reopen the factory. It also told the court that it had not ruined Plachimada’s water resources and that the Kerala government’s actions were “misleading”.
Similar groundwater problems have plagued the company in the rural Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where farming is the primary industry. Several thousand residents took part in a 10-day march in 2004 between two Coca-Cola bottling plants thought to be depleting groundwater. “Drinking Coke is like drinking farmer’s blood in India,” said protest organizer Nandlal Master. “Coca-Cola is creating thirst in India, and is directly responsible for the loss of livelihood and even hunger for thousands of people across India,” added Master, who represented the India Resource Center in the campaign against Coca-Cola. Groundwater isn’t the only issue. The Central Pollution Control Board of â€‹India found in 2003 that sludge from Coca-Cola’s Uttar Pradesh factory was contaminated with high levels of cadmium, lead, and chromium.â€‹â€‹ To make matters worse, Coca-Cola was offloading cadmium-laden waste sludge as “free fertilizer” to tribal farmers who live near the plant, prompting questions as to why they would do that but not provide clean water to local residents whose underground supplies were being “stolen.” Another Indian nonprofit group, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), says it tested 57 carbonated beverages made by Coca-Cola and Pepsi at 25 bottling plants and found a “cocktail of between three to five different pesticides in all samples.” Citing excessive groundwater pumping, in 2014, Indian government officials ordered closed the Mehdiganj plant in the state of Uttar Pradesh. For its part, Coca-Cola says that “a small number of politically motivated groups” are going after the company “for the furtherance of their own anti-multinational agenda.” It denies that its actions in India have contributed to depleting local aquifers, and calls allegations “without any scientific basis.”
More than 1,200 persons took part in a rally from Daak Patthar Barrage on Yamuna river about 12 km away from the Charba village, in Doon Valley where Coca-Cola planned to set up its plant. Young and old, villagers and city dwellers became one in saying, “Coca-Cola is poison; it is wrecking havoc on our nation”, “In a country of milk and curd; Coke and Pepsi is absurd”, “Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola; leave India, leave India”, and “Your plan on our land, will not work, will not work”. The story began on the 17th of April 2013 with the Government of Uttarakhand signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, allowing for the establishment of a 600 crore bottling plant on forty hectares of land in Charba village, Vikasnagar, Doon Valley. The land had more than 60,000 trees of different species such as Shisham, Kher, Bakkaiyan, and Sagwan, planted by Charba village members. After India’s independence there was a land donation movement (Bhoomi Daan) led by Vinobha Bhave, through which this land was given to the Gram Panchayat (village government) of Charba village, Vikasnagar, Uttarakhand. In 2006 Charbba Gram Panchayat agreed to give this land for a university to be built with the condition that construction would begin within 2 years, if this fails to occur, the land will be returned to the village.
Thus, it is evident that Coca-Cola continues to face crises in India due to its mismanagement of water resources, including the forced closure of its bottling plant by government authorities in Kerala in 2005, the closure of its 15-year -old plant in Varanasi, the refusal by government authorities to allow a fully-built expansion plant to operate in Varanasi in August 2014, a proposed plant in Uttarakhand cancelled in April 2014 and the withdrawal of the land allocated for a new bottling plant by the government in Tamil Nadu due to large- scale community protests in April 2015. Meanwhile, a Coca-Cola press release issued on March 17, 2016 indicated that the company had stopped production in another two bottling plants in India—in addition to the three bottling plants that were shut down earlier. One of the plants shut down in January was in the village of Kala Dera in the desert state of Rajasthan. The plant was the target of a community-led campaign seeking its closure because Coca-Cola’s groundwater extraction in the severely water-stressed area had led to wide-scale water shortages.