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The Fizz Of Rage

Ire against Coke spreads in its own land, and there's an Indian link fuelling it

By ASHISH KUMAR SEN
Issue: 1/16/06
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OutlookIndia.com

When students of the University of Michigan returned from their winter break this week, they found the vending machines on their campus having no Coca-Cola products. The discovery sent a round of cheers among students who have been campaigning against Coke for allegedly causing environmental pollution in India (a court case is on in Kerala) and following dubious labour practices in Colombia.

Their sustained campaign, under the aegis of the Coalition to Cut the Contract with Coca-Cola (CCCC), yielded result as the varsity suspended the purchase of Coke products beginning January 1, in the process joining a band of over 10 academic institutions in the US to have imposed such a boycott. The vending machines on the campus will either remain empty or will be stocked with other brands — department heads have been instructed not to buy Coca-Cola products on official accounts. Students, however, can still buy Coke at the varsity's restaurant chains that have separate pacts with the soft drink giant.

The campaign against Coke began in November 2004. Then, the University of Michigan's Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality had lodged a formal complaint with the varsity that Coca-Cola's bottling plants in India were guilty of depleting groundwater and precipitating drought conditions. The students also accused it of using water contaminated with pesticides to prepare its beverages in India, and the paramilitary to intimidate and kill union members in Colombia.

Subsequently, the university's dispute review board said it could not vouch for Coke's compliance with the code of conduct that governs vendors, and recommended additional assessment to determine whether it is guilty of groundwater depletion and disposal of hazardous bio-solid wastes in India. Till then, the board suggested that the varsity not enter into new contracts or renew any expiring contracts (worth $1.4 million) with Coke, which has 27 company-owned and 17 franchisee-owned bottling operations in India.

Coca-Cola Co rubbishes the allegations. Company spokeswoman Kari Bjorhus told Outlook, "It's well known that pesticides are widely used in agriculture in India, and if misused have the potential to contaminate water sources and agricultural products." But, she said, water used in Coke products is passed through a multi-barrier water treatment system designed to "ensure every drop is safe for use in our beverages". Also, in a December 16 letter to the University of Michigan, the company claims that it has "continued to reduce water use ratios in India (24 per cent between 2000 and 2004 — from 5.12 litres per litre of product to 3.9). In fact, through our rainwater harvesting initiative in Kerala, we would be surely able to return a substantial percentage of the water we remove from the aquifers."

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi counters Coke's claims, noting that a parliamentary committee had dismissed precisely those assertions made by Bjorus. CSE director Sunita Narain described the water harvesting claim as fraudulent. "We found it was not even beginning to harvest 1/10th of the water it was using," she said. In fact, the Coke plant in Plachimada near Palakkad in Kerala has remained closed because of litigation on environmental issues since March 2004.

What galls some CCCC activists of the university is that the suspension of contract with Coke is not permanent — and can be renewed later. Kristin Purdy, a CCCC member, says she is concerned that the varsity still maintains Coca-Cola is acting in "good faith" despite its purported environmental and human rights violations. In a December 29 letter to Coca-Cola, the university's executive vice president Timothy Slottow and associate vice president (finance) Peggy Norgen said the varsity plans to resume procurement of Coca-Cola products "if...we can agree on the process for a third-party review of environmental concerns in India."

Adri Miller, a sophomore at the university, says she would be "disappointed and enraged" if the varsity renewed its contracts with Coca-Cola. "There are more issues of abuse in other countries. We have plenty of information against Coke that we can keep filing," she told Outlook. Another sophomore, Lindsey Rogers, says many students on the campus feel the battle against Coca-Cola is a worthy cause. "There are others," she admits, "who say every MNC does this, so why fight Coke. To me that is not a credible argument — that if everything is bad you shouldn't do anything to change it."

In New York, Ray Rogers, who runs the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke that has worked with student activists, says the University of Michigan should have acted against the MNC many months ago. "The world of Coca-Cola is full of lies, deception and abuses. It is a company that has brought hardship and despair to people in Colombia, India, Mexico and Ghana, and I could go on," he said.

Assistance in the campaign against Coke has also come from the San Francisco-based India Resource Center, which is working with communities in India and student organisations across North America and the United Kingdom to make the case against Coca-Cola. Amit Srivastava from the center believes "prestigious universities must not engage in contractual relations with firms that engage in unethical practices". Breathlessly listing universities contemplating action against Coke, Srivastava warns, "Coke will continue to lose lucrative contracts with more colleges and universities unless it cleans up its act in India".

Sunita Narain feels the action of American varsities against Coke only "shows that consumers won't take blatant violations lying down, and particularly so if the boycott comes from America — the land of Coke." Lindsey Rogers is confident the growing momentum of protests on US campuses would impact on the firm. "So many people have been protesting against Coke in India and Colombia but we never hear about it in the US media. Now when the University of Michigan suspends Coke contracts everyone is writing about it." She then adds ominously, "Our biggest weapon against them is their reputation."

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