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"Face the Facts," BBC Radio 4 — Coca-Cola/India Update

February 1, 2004

PRESENTER: JOHN WAITE
PRODUCER: SUE MITCHELL

GANDHI
It was the first report that came out because of the sludge that you took out which gave the local community a piece of paper which said no you have found something and found something toxic, you found something hazardous and it really shouldn't have been there. It would definitely be a lesson to companies that you don't take poor Indian villagers for granted again.

WAITE
Coca-Cola has poured a billion dollars and built dozens of plants in India but the company maintains it's committed to protecting the local environments where its new factories are sited.

COCA-COLA STATEMENT
The Coca-Cola company exists to benefit and refresh everyone it touches. We have always believed that good business means treating the environment with the utmost respect. Respect that begins at the level of our water and natural resources.

The Coca-Cola plant here in Kerala covers nearly 40 acres. An impressive, highly automated, factory employing 400 local people and supplying 32,000 outlets with a range of fizzy drinks, including Coke, Mirinda, Thums Up and the company's own brand of mineral water Kinley. Production, of course, which requires a lot of water and although this particular part of Kerala is a well known rain shadow area, which receives far less than the state's average rainfall, deep below the Coca-Cola plant here is what's called an aquifer - a vast subterranean chamber covering possibly several square kilometres where centuries, even thousands of years, worth of water has gathered. It's this water source that the company has been exploiting, building bore wells that run hundreds of feet into the Earth and using powerful pumps that extract millions of gallons at a rapid rate from what, according to Krishnam Coot, the area's former member of the Indian Assembly, is a very finite water supply.

COOT THROUGH TRANSLATOR
This area in Kerala has the richest groundwater of the whole state. The underground, when you go deep, it has a huge aquifer underneath and has a lot of water and there's huge exploitation of the limited resource by the company. And you cannot say what the effect is going to be a few years down the line because this huge reservoir under the ground is slowly being tapped.

WAITE
And the result of such powerful extraction, according to Professor K. Streetharon, not only depletes the water supply but actually affects the water quality, contaminating it with potentially harmful foreign particles as it's sucked rapidly upwards through the various rock strata.

STREETHARON
The quality of the water will change as the water is being pumped up.

WAITE
And makes that water undrinkable as a result?

STREETHARON
It becomes undrinkable.

WAITE
As local people who live literally in the shadow of the Coca-Cola plant were only too anxious to show us. In the crowded settlement of Plachimada, for example, whose huts and concrete shacks abut the factory walls, we were invited to inspect the contents of the village well. Eighty homes and some 600 people have traditionally depended on it as their main water source but drawing up a pot full now the liquid was cloudy to look at and strange to taste.

ACTUALITY
WAITE
I'm just pouring the water now, it's just boiled on this open fire.

INTERPRETER
He's taking us to the light and he says to look at the water, it's already turned a bit turbid, it looks slightly chalky white.

We don't think the water's good and Kerala health department has told them it's not good, it's unfit for consumption but they're not sure what it is.

WAITE
And the water was never like this before?

INTERPRETER
He said he is 33-years-old now and in 30 years of his life he's never had any trouble with any of this water. Only now after the company's come all the problems have started.

WAITE
The damage to local water supplies has affected virtually everyone in the area. Growing crops - rice, coconuts, mangoes - is this part of Kerala's principle, indeed virtually sole, activity. We were shown a series of wells which had dried up altogether, bringing hardship to the families who depended on them to grow subsistence crops. And we met smallholders for whom farming is their livelihood and who now face ruin. Also with well waters fouled or dried up altogether it means some families have to walk miles everyday to find fresh supplies. Each morning you can see scores of women setting off in different directions to still useable water holes, some distance from the plant.

ACTUALITY
WAITE
Myla is 56 and she's carrying a seven gallon pot to get her water,

INTERPRETER
She said she does have to go four kilometres every day, they go once in the morning and once in the evening, so it's a total of eight kilometres she walks every day.

She said yes it is good that some other people try to understand how difficult it is for us and the Coca-Cola people claim that there's nothing wrong with the water and these people are exaggerating, so she wants to know if we think that she's a fool to walk every day this far if the water at home is fine.

WAITE
Another concern about Coca-Cola's activities in Kerala centred on the waste products produced by its plant. There appear to be two main types - a sort of black smelly tar-like substance and a more powdery light coloured residue. Tons of this waste, we were told, is regularly driven out of the factory gates and simply dumped. And we ourselves followed a tractor and trailer full, which ironically perhaps, given the local water pollution problems, was just emptied on to a riverbed - somewhat at odds, it seemed, with the company's stated policy.

COCA-COLA STATEMENT
The Coca-Cola company is working constantly toward coming up with smart creative ways to reuse waste. Recycling and reusing waste materials is absolutely crucial if we're to maintain the health and beauty of the Earth.

Coca-Cola says the waste from its Kerala plant is a fertiliser, which it has been donating to local farmers. Like the one whose property we visited at Manal Torda [phon.], half an hour's drive from the Coca-Cola plant. Every week for the past two years this place has been receiving up to four large loads of both types of industrial waste and so some of its fields look more like moonscapes of variously coloured mounds.

ACTUALITY
WAITE
I mean this is a beautiful farm but the lovely green fields of the farm - these fields have certainly been despoiled because they're covered in black slurry. These great dumps of black and it has to be said fairly evil looking sludge, some of its solidified but actually our feet are sinking aren't they as we walk.

INTERPRETER
Quite a substantial quantity.

WAITE
Tons and tons and tons. Have we any idea what this stuff is?

INTERPRETER
No, nobody seems to have any idea what it is.

WAITE
Well I think we should take some samples and we'll try and find out what it is and whether it would be any use whatsoever on a farm like this.

INTERPRETER
Yeah, yeah.

WAITE
There's no doubt that everyone at the Coca-Cola plant in Kerala is well aware of the controversy it's causing, there's a police post at the main gate and razor wire and watchtowers, complete with searchlights, around the perimeter fence. Within minutes of arriving in the area we were approached by a policeman and required to supply our details. And when at the security gate we explained we were seeking an interview, guards wouldn't even give us the telephone number of the plant or that of Coke's Delhi HQ. Using the phone directory we subsequently managed to meet Mr Sunil Gupta, who's vice-president of Coca-Cola India. The bottling plant in Kerala, he told us, had been the target of a handful of extremist and politically motivated protestors and all the allegations about misusing local water resources were false.

SUNIL GUPTA
We have got studies done by the state groundwater authorities, by the pollution control board, this is not vindicated by any scientific data.

WAITE
Look here's a bottle, this water was taken from a well about five metres from the fence of the Coca-Cola plant, now look at that water Mr Gupta, would you drink that? It's grey, you can see specks floating around in it.

I wouldn't drink that stuff, I'm suggesting, Mr Gupta, neither would you now, will you tell me truthfully sir would you?

SUNIL GUPTA
No frankly if this is the water that, as you say, has been really from the well I've no comments to make but generally the water that we have been testing in and around the community we find that it's absolutely potable. Once you get it tested then we'll be able to talk about it.

WAITE
We want to turn now, if we can, to the waste products that your plant produces. We saw for ourselves a tractor and a trailer come out of the plant, trundle down the road for a couple of kilometres and dump that waste into a riverbed. Now is that acceptable behaviour?

SUNIL GUPTA
Our plant is a zero discharge plant and we have a very comprehensive and scientific effluent treatment plant and whatever is coming out of it is being used as fertilisers by the neighbouring farmers and there have been no complaints.

WAITE
And this effluent you say is a fertiliser is it?

SUNIL GUPTA
Some of it is being used by the farmers as a fertiliser.

WAITE
It's been promoted to them as a fertiliser but I'm asking you Mr Gupta is it a fertiliser?

SUNIL GUPTA
We understand that it is good for the crops yes.

WAITE
And how do you understand that?

SUNIL GUPTA
Because of the analysis that we have done about the product.

WAITE
Because we've taken samples, here's another one going back to London with us, this black sludge is over farmers' fields and it's leeching down into the groundwater - are you sure that it's safe?

SUNIL GUPTA
Yes John it is absolutely safe for that.

WAITE
Well the samples we obtained during our trip were duly analysed by the Greenpeace research laboratories at the University of Exeter where senior scientist, Dr David Santillo told me that one water sample, the one I invited Mr Gupta to taste and taken from a well right next to the plant, contained a number of mineral impurities and was indeed unsuitable for drinking. But the other samples of the black industrial waste and water from a well that the sludge had contaminated were even more disturbing.

SANTILLO
The black waste that we received contains very high levels of toxic heavy metals, namely cadmium and lead. Cadmium is particularly toxic to the kidney in humans, also to the liver, it's also known to be a human carcinogen. Lead is known to be a very potent developmental toxin and it's particularly toxic to the developing nervous system in children.

WAITE
And what do you make of the fact that Coca-Cola promotes this as a fertiliser?

SANTILLO
Well this really is remarkable. This is really encouraging the use of contaminated sludges as fertilisers and that's really a cynical exploitation of the farming community in order to dispose of the company's industrial waste.

WAITE
When our original programme was broadcast, six months ago, it caused quite a stir in India. The question of water exploitation by Coca-Cola and the contaminated waste it was supplying to local farmers was raised in Parliament and some government buildings, as well as schools, colleges and restaurants introduced a ban on the sale of Coke and other fizzy drinks. As for the Plachimada plant itself, on our return to Kerala last month we met up again with local farmer Manlay Cojicaray, who told us that the programme had prompted swift official action.

COJICARAY THROUGH INTERPRETER
The plant was immediately closed for a couple of days when the government came in and took samples of all the waste. They then had that analysed and they also found that the contaminants did exist - there were heavy metals in the waste. And so the company did remain closed for quite a while - nothing was allowed to enter or go out.

WAITE
In fact, according to the president of the Perumatty Panchayat, the local council for the area of the plant, the broadcast excited national interest in what had been happening in Kerala. Mr A. Krishnan told us that pollution control boards across the country had ordered similar investigations of bottled drinks plants, with a Coke factory in west Bengal, for example, reporting very similar findings of heavy metals in the waste. In Kerala in the past few months the council has been fighting Coca-Cola through the high court over whether the Panchayat has the power to revoke the company's licence to operate.

Our findings, the Panchayat president told me, had helped establish that the law was on their side, as well as popular opinion.

KRISHNAN THROUGH INTERPRETER
It was only after the BBC did the first report that the local Kerala state pollution control board sent in people to take samples and they confirmed the findings of the BBC. And that was basically, he feels, the turning point in everything because until then many people thought it was an isolated incident of some locals - this extremist fighting against a big multinational because Kerala's known to have a history of opposing these kind of multinationals being here. But after that, when the BBC conclusively proved that there was heavy metals in the waste and the company was doing serious damage to the area, all the local press and the Indian media came on to their side and from then it's been very much more easy for them to fight this big multinational.

WAITE
The fate of the Kerala plant is now a very hot topic and on this visit, last month, we were followed very closely as we went about conducting our interviews. A group of men, apparently employed by a local detective agency, kept watch at our hotel, two men on a moped shadowed us through the alleyways of the local settlement and as we left the offices of the Panchayat president, Mr Krishnan, from nowhere seemingly, a fleet of cars and jeeps materialised and out jumped 20 or so protestors who wanted, somewhat noisily, to have their say about the employment benefits the local Coke plant had brought.

Throughout the day we were handed various letters, all seemingly written on the spur of the moment, but employing perfect English and what appeared to be the same inkjet printer, all extolling what they called the "exemplary humanitarian activities" of Coca-Cola. The activities of the company in clearing up its contaminated waste, however, were not quite so exemplary, as we discovered when we revisited the large farm from where we'd taken our original samples.

Well this is a very different scene than when I was here six months ago when this farm at Manal Torda [phon.] was just black slurry. The waste, that has largely gone, I'm looking now where once we slipped and slid over the pools of this black slurry, now I'm looking over ploughed fields. Did they take the waste away Tarsh [phon.] or have they just ploughed it in, because this is a freshly ploughed field we're looking at?

INTERPRETER
This slurry, Presume, would have been too difficult for them to cart away, so it was simply to just mix off with all the fibre that the farmer had and tell him that it will die out and be fine.

WAITE
Because we heard in the original programme, from the University of Exeter, these heavy metals get into the soil and, as it were, poison the soil but poison the plants that grow in the soil and that's the route they can get into people. This farmer doesn't appear to know that because he's clearly ploughed all these fields over and sown another crop, so he's growing on polluted soil.

INTERPRETER
And this is a huge area he's ploughed, so this is going to go to the local market and all the people in this area are going to probably consume what's grown off this land. The waste has just been left and mixed up and sort of made to disappear but it hasn't really gone, it's still in the soil very obviously.

WAITE
If the clear up appeared to be somewhat cursory, so too did Coke's explanation to local farmers about why the waste had to be removed.

INTERPRETER
The company did not tell him anything about it being poisonous or anything but he knew from the newspaper reports he had read that the waste did contain that. He said he would very much like to do something but he's alone, a small farmer, there is nothing much he can do against a big corporation like them. So there's no way he can go and ask and again he doesn't know what kind of damage is done.

WAITE
Apart from the waste the issue of water depletion remains to be resolved because being unable to grow their crops, due to lack of water, has driven some farmers to desperate measures, according to the chairman of the biggest farming union in the area, Ravi Kumar.

KUMAR
The biggest problem that they're facing now is the debt trap because most of the farmers, especially in [place name] area almost all of them are in debt to the bank. And it's come to a stage where even if they sell their property they won't be able to pay back the loan. We are going to the court on this, we have filed a writ in the court asking the court to direct the government to conduct a detailed [indistinct words] study and if the study shows that you are overexploiting the natural resources [indistinct word] and see to it that it is made sustainable.

WAITE
The lot of the locals does not appear to have improved much since our last visit. Myla, for example, the grey-haired grandmother, is still having to make her daily water walk of eight kilometres to find drinkable supplies. Since I'd accompanied her six months ago I calculated that she's walked over 800 miles carrying her 14 gallon load, growing ever more weary as well as bitter.

MYLA THROUGH INTERPRETER
We still have to walk the same distance to get the water. Obviously walking such large distances her legs started to hurt and even her hands where she carries the pots in her hands - her hands and legs seriously hurt. Now she doesn't do anything, she can't even go to work anywhere because she just has to sit down most of the day, she isn't capable of doing any serious work anymore. So she doesn't do anything more and her health has become seriously worse.

WAITE
The village well that Myla used to use, the main water source for the settlement, is right by the Coca-Cola plant. It was from there that samples we took six months ago confirmed the well water to be undrinkable. Shadowed by the mysterious moped we made our way, once more, down the dusty alleys of the settlement, where we clearly bemused a group of local women and children by asking to take yet another sample.

Considering it's been the monsoon recently the water level here is still quite low, I can see the bottom of the well, so there's only a couple of feet of water. Here it comes. About eight gallons of water in the pot, up to the top on the pulley, it's down to the side. Has anybody been here to test the water since we were last here with you?

INTERPRETER
Lots of people have been here apparently from the last time we came here and they all look at the water, which seems to be okay, but then again the same thing when they boil it, it turns white and when they taste it, it tastes quite different as well. She thinks it's becoming worse because she thinks it's because the waste is being dumped here and it's all seeping into the ground.

WAITE
That is one obvious result of our original broadcast. Coca-Cola has been ordered to contain and seal all its waste now within the grounds of the plant, an operation we would have liked to see for ourselves but getting into the plant on this trip proved every bit as difficult as on the last.

Well I'm approaching the gate now. Last time we were here Mr Gupta promised us full access to see his plant. Here's the gate man.

Good morning. Can I see Mr Janadan [phon.] please the manager?

GATE MAN
No, no.

WAITE
Why not? Can't we come in and leave a message at security?

GATE MAN
No.

WAITE
But all we want to do is see the waste, see what's happening to the waste.

GATE MAN
Not allowed.

WAITE
We're not allowed? Why not? What is the reason? You see here we are - here we are, I'm trying to come into the plant and I'm not even allowed to go to the security room and ask to see the manager.

Despite having informed Coca-Cola a week in advance of our trip to Kerala, when we arrived, once again, I was told I would have to phone Coke's Delhi HQ to request permission to go inside the plant. From a little phone booth opposite the main gates I did just that. Not that it got me very far.

Well I'm in the phone box, right opposite the plant, we want permission to go into the plant but we've had to ring Delhi, several hundred miles away, to seek that permission and have spoken to Mr Gupta, who, of course, as an executive vice-president of Coca-Cola India appeared on our last programme and Mr Gupta tells me that now my inquiries must go to Hong Kong. So I could literally walk across the road here and be through those gates in less than a minute but I think we've got to go through a few more international hurdles before and if that is ever allowed.

And in the end it wasn't. But if I found Coke's tactics over its Kerala plant frustrating, others find the company's behaviour completely infuriating. Mrs Manika Gandhi is a member of India's most famous political family and the country's former social justice and environment minister.

GANDHI
They need to treat us as people and what they did was they took advantage of the ignorance of the locals and they never thought for a minute that BBC Radio would come in and expose them.

WAITE
We've been back to the plant and we've looked at the cleanup operation and we've seen bags of waste still on farmers' fields and we've seen waste that's just been ploughed into the ground. So the problem hasn't been by any means totally removed, what do you think about the long term impact of that?

GANDHI
I think that we should take it up and call for a boycott of Coke unless they actually pay a huge amount and physically put people to clean up the damage, clean up those agricultural lands, take back their bags, pay compensation to the farmers and then only we can see that they have reformed. This way it's just that they got caught, they stopped the activities and now they'll send them somewhere else.

WAITE
For my part the concerns I wished to discuss with Coca-Cola were over what is happening to its waste products in Kerala. Since I was unable to gain access to the plant to see for myself I asked the company's president in India, Mr Sanjeev Gupta, what Coke had been doing in the wake of our programme.

GUPTA
What we did was we took your programme very seriously and the concerns it raised in the community, we stopped giving it out, we re-tested across all our plants, revalidated our data. So science on our side I believe but I'm not going to trade scientific data.

WAITE
As you know Mr Gupta our findings at your plant were confirmed just days after the original programme, when the Kerala state pollution control board took samples from the plant and found themselves amounts of lead and cadmium in the waste.

GUPTA
John, the point I'm here today is to say we are a long term player in Kerala and we have been model citizens or reasonable citizens. I'm willing to say your concerns are important concerns and therefore we took them seriously, taking a full precautionary principle we stopped putting it out into the whole country. So I'm not arguing about it at all.

WAITE
But you had been putting it out for three years in Plachimada.

GUPTA
Sir but I would simply submit that we work with various pollution boards, some of them have said it's non-hazardous but going beyond compliance we have gone and said we want to be beyond compliance so we will not - we will treat it as hazardous across the country.

WAITE
Okay well you're compliant now you say but I mean unless that programme had been broadcast you would have gone on supplying this waste to farmers.

GUPTA
I accept that and I think the BBC put a spotlight into this, I think the BBC can help us going further into Kerala and saying we have a very strong programme and a very strong desire to go and be a positive contributor to the Kerala environment and to the Kerala community, we have a problem in communicating because we are a perceived capitalist company talking to self-confessed Marxists whose whole object is to "throw Coca-Cola out of India".

WAITE
So this is all about politics is it Mr Gupta, it's not about pollution, it's about politics?

GUPTA
No, I think it is about being a positive contributor to the environment.

WAITE
But what responsible company, Mr Gupta, would allow farmers to believe that its waste products were good for their land without first checking that that was true?

GUPTA
But we have checked John, we can get into a discussion of is my science and facts right ...

WAITE
But did you know Mr Gupta that your waste contained these elements - cadmium, a known carcinogen, and lead, which is a potent developmental toxin?

GUPTA
We have independent tests across our other plants which show that these bio-solids contain below safe levels of - and they can be used as land application.

WAITE
How much of this stuff, Mr Gupta, have you cleaned up?

GUPTA
I think whichever farmer has asked us to remove it we've taken it into the plant, we've cleaned it out, we've stored in the plant.

WAITE
What's going to happen to all the waste that's building up at your plant in Kerala? I mean it can't continue to be stored at the plant, where's it going to go?

GUPTA
It can go to approved landfill sites, it can be worked through worming composting to bring down the level of heavy metals, not only cadmium but heavy metals, to very, very low levels. So there are several techniques we are working on. Next time you're in Kerala we'll take you there or next time you're in India, very happy to have you over and see what we're doing.

WAITE
Well as you know I would have very much liked to have visited the plant on this trip, once again we weren't allowed to go in and ...

GUPTA
I must really apologise but next time I promise you I will - I think that we were a little scared of you, based on your last interview, but I apologise, okay? I mean I can't - I can only say I apologise but my bona fides are that our plant is absolutely open.

WAITE
The president of Coca-Cola India, Mr Sanjeev Gupta. Exactly how long the plant remains open is another matter however, for despite the rainwater harvesting project that Coca-Cola has developed at the plant the Kerala high court has now ruled that the company must find alternative water sources and only extract amounts of water, from its Kerala plant, equivalent to those used by any other landowner with 34 acres. Coca-Cola's been given one month to comply, although it's already announced it will appeal. Many of the locals, though, are overjoyed at what they see as a legal victory. So much so that in the settlement of Plachimada children gather to tell us of their hopes that the company would leave and the land the plant is on revert to the fields and coconut groves on which they once played.

CHILDREN THROUGH INTERPRETER
They're hoping fields will come back there again. There'll be a little pond there we can play in and there'll be lots of cornfields and peanut fields and we'll have clean water and it won't smell badly.

WAITE
And what's the song they want to sing for us?

INTERPRETER
Something about nature, about how there will be trees back again and birds would come back.

WAITE
So they've chosen this to sort of illustrate their feelings?

INTERPRETER
Yeah I guess so, yeah. A song about nature.

CHILDREN SINGING

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