Campaign to Hold Coca-Cola Accountable


Coca-Cola Crisis in India

Communities across India are under assault from Coca-Cola practices in the country. A pattern has emerged as a result of Coca-Cola's bottling operations in India.

Destroying Lives, Livelihoods and Communities

Water shortages, pollution of groundwater and soil, exposure to toxic waste and pesticides is having impacts of massive proportions in India. In a country where over 70% of the population makes a living related to agriculture, stealing the water and poisoning the water and soil is a sure recipe for disaster. Thousands of farmers in India have been affected by Coca-Cola's practices, and Coca-Cola is guilty of destroying the livelihoods of thousands of people in India. Unfortunately, we do not even know the extent of the damage as a result from exposure to the toxic waste and pesticides as these are long term problems. Most affected are the marginalized communities such as the Adivasis (Indigenous People's) and Dalits (formerly untouchables), as well as the low-income communities, landless agricultural workers and women. Taken in its entirety, that's a lot of people in India.

Coca-Cola is destroying the food security of the people of the land, and by stealing the water and poisoning the water and soil, it is also responsible for ensuring a life of misery for future generations to come.

The irony is that most of the impacted community members, who are feeling the brunt of the water shortages and pollution, are unable to afford Coca-Cola. Which may be a good thing given that the product itself is poisonous. But it also raises the larger question of development in India. As is the case with the majority of other commodities in the Indian marketplace, only a fraction of the population are the "beneficiaries" of the current development policies. And unfortunately, the majority are not only left out of the so called "development" process, but they have to pay a high price for it as well.

The Struggles

The arrogance of Coca-Cola in India is not going unanswered. In fact, the growing opposition to Coca-Cola- primarily from Coca-Cola affected communities- has spread so rapidly and gained so much strength that Coca-Cola is now on the defensive.

Kala Dera, Rajasthan

In the state of Rajasthan, the High Court ruled in November 2004 that all soft drinks in the state must state the level of pesticides on the product label, in addition to the ingredients. This unprecedented ruling came only three weeks after a 2,000 strong demonstration to shut down the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Kala Dera, on the outskirts of Jaipur in Rajasthan. Over 50 villages are experiencing water shortages as a result of Coca-Cola's indiscriminate mining of water, and "struggle committees" have been formed in at least 32 villages to confront Coca-Cola's abuses. The Central Ground Water Board, a government agency, not only confirmed the declining water table as a result of Coca-Cola's indiscriminate mining of the water, it also faulted Coca-Cola for creating "ecological imbalances" in the area.

In response to the court order to state the level of pesticides on their labels, Coca-Cola appealed the decision on the grounds that such an action would force them to compromise with their "commercial confidentiality"! Coca-Cola also submitted to the court that small traces of DDT and other pesticides are not harmful "to the health of the consumers." The court rejected the appeal, and significantly, stated that "commercial interests are subservient to fundamental rights."

Plachimada, Kerala

The single largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in India, in Plachimada, Kerala, remains shut down since March 2004. Initially ordered to shut down until June 15 (for arrival of monsoon rains) by the state government to ease drought conditions, the Plachimada bottling plant has been unable to open because the local village council (panchayat) is REFUSING to reissue Coca-Cola a license to operate. The village council has maintained that the plant needs to shut down because it has destroyed the water system in the area as well as polluted the area.

The panchayat is an elected body at the most local level in India, and forms the building block of democracy in India - Panchayat Raj- a model promoted extensively by Mahatma Gandhi. Coca-Cola, in typical fashion, has chosen to undermine democracy by appealing to the courts that the panchayat has no jurisdiction over the plant and Coca-Cola, and that it should be the state of Kerala that makes the decision. Coca-Cola's efforts to undermine local governance is being followed closely as the court ruling in favor of the panchayat could set a significant precedence for local governance.

The struggle in Plachimada is the oldest struggle against Coca-Cola in India and there has been a 24/7 vigil directly in front of the factory gates since April 22, 2002. The struggle in Plachimada has also enjoyed significant victories. In December 2003, the High court, in an extremely significant decision, ruled that Coca-Cola HAD to seek alternative sources of water and that it could extract only as much water from the common groundwater resource as a farmer owning 34 acres of land could. The justification being that the plant is located on 34 acres. Furthermore, the court held that the groundwater belonged to the people and the Government had no right to allow a private party to extract such a huge quantity of ground water which was "a property held by it in trust''.

In another significant action in August, 2004, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (PCB), acting upon a Supreme court order, directed the Coca-Cola company to ensure that water supply through pipeline is delivered to the houses of all the affected communities in the vicinity.

While the various court and government agencies are validating and acting upon the community concerns, Coca-Cola is busy putting more money into a public relations strategy designed to convince everyone that they have nothing to do with the water scarcity and pollution in Plachimada and in India.

Mehdiganj, Uttar Pradesh

More so than other struggles against Coca-Cola in India, the communities in Mehdiganj, a village about 20 kms from the holy city of Varanasi, have more of an uphill battle because the local and state officials are turning a blind eye to the concerns of the communities. So far.

The water table has declined between 25-40 feet in the last four years, and Coca-Cola has been discharging its waste water into the surrounding fields, and now into a canal that feeds into the river Ganges, a holy river for millions of Indian. The landscape is very rural, and farming is the main source of livelihood in the area. Many farmers have yet to be compensated for the land that was taken from them in order to build the Coca-Cola bottling facility.

The movement to shut down the Coca-Cola plant has been growing rapidly for the last year. In August 2003, community members entered the office of the Regional Pollution Control Board in Varanasi, and to protest their inaction, dumped sacks full of sludge from the Coca-Cola plant on the table of the regional officer. In September 2003, over 500 people marched to the Coca-Cola factory gates and were physically attacked and beaten by police and private security guards. In October 2003, a march was organized from the Coke plant in Mehdiganj to a Pepsi plant in Jaunpur, about 150 km away. And in mid-December 2003, ten activists went on a five-day hunger strike in front of the plant. They were supported by fifty people sitting with them each day, and about 300 people went on hunger strikes of varied duration. And in June 2004, hundreds conducted a sit-in in front of the state assembly in Lucknow.

So far, not only have the authorities not cooperated at all, they have consistently refused to make good on their promises of inquiries and investigations to look into Coca-Cola's practices that are depleting the groundwater and polluting the water and soil. In addition, the authorities have trumped up criminal charges against some of the key leaders of the struggle, and issued orders to these leaders preventing them from "shouting slogans or making inflammatory speeches within 300 meters of the plant".

The communities are determined to close down the factory in Mehdiganj, and the local organizers have been extremely successful in garnering local support in the area. They have also organized the community around a new Coca-Cola plant in Balia, about 250 kms away. From November 15-24, 2004, a march will be conducted from the Coca-Cola factory gates in Balia to the Coca-Cola factory gates in Mehdiganj, demanding the closure of both the facilities.

The resilience and determination of the community in Mehdiganj is paying off, and Coca-Cola has a full fledged problem in its hand. Once again.

Coca-Cola's Spin

Coca-Cola has decided that the problems in India are a public relations problem, and that they will "spin" them away. Coca-Cola has hired a public relations firm, Perfect Relations, to develop a new image for them in India. The head of communications for Coca-Cola Asia has been moved to India from Hong Kong to try to deal, in a PR way, with the growing resistance.

Neville Isdell, the new CEO of Coca-Cola who assumed office in April 2004, chose India as the first country to visit after assuming office. However, it was a "stealth" visit, and was discovered by Indian journalists only when they pried about it. Isdell was rightly concerned that a public announcement of Coca-Cola's top man to India would be met with a sizeable protest.

Coca-Cola has also just announced plans to significantly increase the marketing budget in India from next year.

No matter of spin and increased marketing for Coca-Cola will solve the problems that have been created by Coca-Cola in India. The first step that Coca-Cola must take is to admit to the severity of problems it has caused in India, and then find ways to address them operationally:

Anything short of the above measures will make it increasingly difficult for Coca-Cola to do business in India. And elsewhere.