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Coke's water-harvesting claims 'fraudulent'

By Ashish Kumar Sen
Issue: 1/11/06
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The Tribune (India)

OVER a dozen universities in the United States have terminated contracts with the Coca-Cola company in part because of concerns that the multinational corporation is polluting the environment in India, drastically lowering the water table and selling products tainted by pesticides.
The University of Michigan is the latest in a string of schools to refuse to stock Coca-Cola products on its campus.

Sunita Narain, Director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi and a Padma Shri awardee, first raised the alarm over the presence of pesticides in Coca-Cola products a couple of years ago. An unrelenting advocate for the rights of farmers in Kerala where Coca-Cola's plant has been shut since March 2004 due to ongoing litigation, Miss Narain says in an interview that the growing awareness on U.S. campuses about Coca-Cola's business practices is a positive sign.

Excerpts: Q: The University of Michigan has announced a boycott of Coca-Cola products. Students and activists here say there have been human rights violations at Coca-Cola plants in India.

There have been two clear issues that have arisen with the soft drink companies in India. One has been a local protest by farmers in Kerala where they say the Coke plant has depleted groundwater levels in their village.

And second, they found toxic levels of cadmium and heavy metals in the waste that the plant was generating. Coke has never been regulated for hazardous waste and was giving away this sludge to farmers to use as fertilizer in their farms.

Q: The Coca-Cola Company has assured the University of Michigan that it has started water harvesting in Kerala to replace the water it is using. Are Coke's efforts sufficient?

The water harvested at these plants is a pittance. The parliamentary committee dismissed Coke's claim for rainwater harvesting. We found it was not even beginning to harvest 1/10th of the water it was using. This claim of water harvesting is fraudulent.

Q: Do you believe a boycott of Coca-Cola products by U.S. universities will put more pressure on the firm to improve its practices around the world?

All public protests are very important parts of the way we develop our relationships with modern business. It also has major impacts on our daily lives. We have to have more powerful ways to ensure that business does not adversely affect our lives. Today, MNCs work outside the ambit of regulatory agencies. We have been asking for standards to regulate companies. We have been appalled to find how lax these standards are around the world, even in Europe.

In some sense the consumer movement will have to get more powerful. It will show that consumers won't take these blatant violations lying down. The message is particularly strong if the boycott comes from America, the land of Coke.

But one must also give credit to the residents of a tiny Kerala village, Plachimada, who stood up to this multinational.

Q: You raised concerns in India a few years ago about the presence of pesticides in soft drinks. Has the situation improved since?

No. This is still a big concern for us. I don't want to sound despondent. We have not given up, India is a democracy and I believe we still stand a chance. After two years and proof that confirmed our concerns about pesticides in soft drinks were correct, just late last month the government submitted an action taken report to Parliament. The report noted that virtually no action has been taken.

Q: Does India have any laws that mandate the quality of water to be used in the manufacture of soft drinks?

After our study the quality of water to be used has been mandated for Coke. We have been asking for final quality standards that specify how much heavy metal and caffeine and ph are allowed.

When we tested for pesticides we also tested bottles smuggled out from the U.S. Embassy in Delhi. At the embassy they don't drink Coke made in India. But we also found a fair amount of pesticides in these bottles that came from Hong Kong. We did not, however, find any pesticides in the bottles from the U.S.

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