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Wells run dry: Coke faces thirsty opponents in India

By Paul Jeffrey
3/24/06
National Catholic Reporter
Varanasi, India

Ever since the giant soft drink manufacturer Coca-Cola took over a nearby bottling plant seven years ago, the water level in Jagrupani Devi's ancient well has dropped until it finally disappeared. The 55-year-old farmer has a deeper well with a hand pump, but she says she has to pump and pump until finally only dirty water emerges.

"I grew up here, and even when we had a long drought the water in our wells never dropped so low," said Devi, who lives in Mehdiganj, a village just outside Varanasi in northern India. "When there's no water, life gets hard for us. The rice doesn't grow well. What are we poor people supposed to eat?"

Devi and many of her neighbors draw a direct connection between their disappearing well water and the use of water by the bottling company. Coke officials deny any such connection and even claim that aquifers have risen in some areas of India where their plants are located.

Water is a difficult resource to trace. Much of it is contained in underground aquifers that know no property boundaries or borders, so a huge drawdown of water from one location can cause wells to dry up beyond that user's property. Yet water moves underground in ways that aren't always apparent; the secret life of water often exacerbates conflicts that arise on the surface over the resource.

Besides mixing water with other ingredients to make soft drinks, a bottling plant uses water to wash bottles, crates, equipment and floors. At Coke's India plants, 3.9 liters of water are needed to produce each liter of beverage, according to the company's Web site (critics claim higher numbers). Each of the 50 Coke plants around the country uses hundreds of thousands of liters of water each day (exactly how much is a matter of bitter contention). Coke has instituted rain water harvesting systems at several of its plants, but most of the liquid still gets pulled from the ground. And the dirty water that's left after the bottles are capped is pumped out of the plants, provoking complaints from some, including several of Devi's neighbors, that toxic sludge has been dumped on their fields, a problem Coke later addressed by diverting the used water.

The Coca-Cola bottling plant in Mehdiganj, India. Protesters charge that Coke has stolen water from underground aquifers and dumped toxic sludge on neighboring fields.

According to local church officials, the most recent sign of the neighborhood's displeasure came Nov. 30, when some 800 demonstrators gathered in front of the plant at Mehdiganj. Devi has been arrested there twice, but is frustrated that the protests seem to have little impact on corporate policies. In 2004 she tried to go to the source, and was scheduled to travel to the United States to speak at a protest outside Coca-Cola's Atlanta headquarters. The U.S. consulate in New Delhi denied her a visa.

On her farm, she shows a visitor her dry well. "All we know how to do is farm, but how are we supposed to farm without water?" she asked.

In several countries around the world, from Colombia to Turkey, Coca-Cola is having a tough time these days. Labor struggles and environmental issues keep Coke's public relations workers busy.

Coke has become a symbol for many of the dark side of globalization, and a Gandhian nonviolent struggle against the beverage maker in India has captured attention from around the world. It has also cost the beverage maker "millions of dollars in lost sales and legal fees," according to a June 7 story in The Wall Street Journal. In its October report to stockholders, the company announced its Indian operations lost 22 percent of its unit case volume in the third quarter of 2005, according to an Associated Press report. It was the third straight quarter of declining unit case volume for Coke in India.

The Indian opponents of Coke, including some Catholic priests who have become involved in protests, have notched up several victories in recent months.

A $16 million Coca-Cola bottling facility at Plachimada in the southern state of Kerala, initially closed in 2004 when the local village council, concerned about depletion of the water table, refused to issue an operating license, remains shut down. The company has appealed that decision to the courts, but state officials, concerned about excess water usage, have had the last word for now.

In Rajasthan, where Coke operates a plant at Kala Dera, a court ruled that Coca-Cola must print the pesticide content on the label of all its products in the state. Coke is reportedly arguing for a watered-down warning (like what tobacco companies put on cigarette packages). On Dec. 11, more than a thousand people, angry about plunging water levels in the area, protested in front of the plant. About 200 were arrested.

The pesticides end up in the bottle because they're present in trace amounts in the water the bottlers suck up from underground. But the manufacturing process can concentrate the poisons. A parliamentary committee in New Delhi banned Coke and Pepsi products from the legislative premises in 2003 after receiving a report from the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment that found their soft drinks contained levels of four pesticides far in excess of European limits. (An earlier study had found similar contamination of bottled water from the two bottlers.) A government-appointed committee is now preparing legislation that would set limits on pesticide levels in soft drinks, but the Center for Science and Environment complained in a Dec. 8 report that the committee had made little progress.

The bottling plants are also under fire for their dirty runoff. In August, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board said it had found unacceptable levels of cadmium in waste from Coke's Plachimada plant and issued a stop order on further production. The agency had made a similar ruling two years earlier, but that was countermanded by the then secretary of the board, K.V. Indulal, who announced that he found Coke's effluent "not beyond tolerable limits."

Coca-Cola sells a dried version of its waste as a soil conditioner in several parts of India, and when a BBC Radio reporter took some back to Britain, laboratory tests showed it contained dangerous levels of chemicals such as cadmium and lead. Coke routinely denies such allegations, yet The Wall Street Journal story on Coke's Indian woes said the company, in violation of its own internal regulations, failed to test for toxicity at the dump site of one of its largest plants in India until after the newspaper's reporter paid a visit.

In a publicity stunt encouraged by activists, several Indian farmers started spraying Coca-Cola directly on their crops, claiming it's cheaper than applying pesticides directly.

According to Sandeep Pandey, the head of the National Alliance of People's Movements, consumers here are treated differently from customers in Coke's home country.

"Coke that's produced in the United States doesn't contain pesticides, but it does here. They've taken the people of the Third World for a ride," he told NCR.

Jagrupani Devi shows her well, which she says has run dry since Coke began local operations five years ago.

Pandey said it's an uphill battle against the Atlanta-based company. "We're up against a giant with no dearth of money. ...Most of the media here won't even name Coca-Cola. They just say, 'a soft drink company.' And it has a wide reach. In a phone interview with a South African radio station, they asked us not to name Coca-Cola, but instead to say 'a soft drink company,' " he said.

A request by NCR to speak with officials at the Mehdiganj factory was refused by security guards, who threatened to hit a reporter with canes if he took photos of the plant gate.

According to Harry Ott, the director of Coke's Global Water Resources Center in Atlanta, the company disputes the accusations that it's selling tainted soda and challenges the accuracy of laboratory studies that have found otherwise. "These are rumors and innuendoes that are not based in fact, and we try to deal in those facts. If there is an issue, of course we're going to address it," Ott told NCR in a telephone interview.

Ott denied that Coke had "a double standard," and said the same quality controls were in place at beverage plants around the world.

Ott said Coke wasn't to blame for Jagrupani Devi's dry well.

"This water is drawn from different levels of different kinds of aquifers. Some people would assume that it would be us, since we're the only big business in that area. They'd make that assumption without any kind of data to back it up," he said, suggesting that more natural causes were to blame.

"India has suffered some severe droughts in the last few years, and some people with anti-multinational agendas have used that as a basis for making these allegations against us," Ott said.

"Coke's characterization of its opponents as a bunch of extremists simply won't work, given that claims by community groups have been verified by various government and state agencies. Coca-Cola is losing the battle in India, and they're quaking in their boots," said Amit Srivastava, coordinator of the India Resource Center.

According to Srivastava, Coke is misrepresenting the water battle. "It's not an issue of how much water they're using so much as how their water usage exacerbates water shortages that already exist in some areas," Srivastava told NCR.

Yet according to Ott, citing studies by his company and "a local government group," the water levels in the Mehdiganj area aquifers have been "actually rising...since our plant has been in operation there."

Pandey, who has a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, laughs at that claim. "If that's the case we should put a Coke plant everywhere so the water table will rise. That's ridiculous. They're trying to mislead the people," he said.

Fr. Alex Philip, a Catholic priest involved in resistance to the Mehdiganj plant, said local farmers report the water table has dropped an average of 25 feet — from 15 to 40 feet below the surface — since Coke moved in.

Yet the beverage maker has some supporters among local residents. "The plant employs some 300 of my own villagers. In the past they traveled some 30 kilometers [about 19 miles] on bicycles to Varanasi to get daily wage jobs. But now they are getting work right in their own village. So how can I go against the plant which is providing livelihood to so many of my villagers? I am the village chief. It is my duty to protect the interests of my villagers," said Ram Saran Yadav, the village council chief in Bhikharipur, a nearby village.

Yadav's counterpart in Mehdiganj opposes the plant, and has revoked the bottler's operating permit.

As protests against the plant grew, three years ago some local political activists organized what they called the All Party Regional Development Front to support the embattled bottler. "It is malicious to attribute the water drop to the Coke plant," said Ramdeo Shastri, a local communist activist who is the front's president. He blamed the water table's decline on the failure of recent monsoons to deliver sufficient rain.

Shastri acknowledged that the plant's sludge negatively affected local farmers, but said Coke's construction of a diversion tube that carries the effluent into a nearby river resolved the problem. "When we found the water containing the chemicals, we pressured the plant officials to take prompt and effective measures to stop it. The officials have done that," he told NCR.

The local debate about the plant easily turns strident. Activists on either side hurl accusations of corruption and self-interest at each other.

Fr. Anand Mathew, a local Catholic priest who opposes the plant, suggests that the All Party Regional Development Front is simply a front for Coke, a charge that both Sashtri and Coke deny.

"We support the plant not because of any gains or hidden motives, but because its lockup could render hundreds of workers jobless," Shastri told NCR. "I am a communist in both action and spirit. How could I tolerate so many stomachs going hungry because of the whims of certain individuals?" He also charged that church organizations abroad were funneling money to the movement through troublesome priests. Shastri was unable to identify for NCR the names of these organizations or priests.

Mathew, who has twice been arrested in front of the bottling plant, scoffs at the charge. "We give our time, energy and resources — except financial resources — because we're convinced of the harm that this company is doing locally, and that many other companies are doing all over the country. It is our love for the poor and the nation that force us to be involved in this movement," he told NCR.

Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary journalist who has filed stories from many foreign lands over a long career. He now lives in Eugene, Ore.

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