Drought -- it's the real thing

Stephen Joseph sued over complaints the firm did not properly inform the public of delays in plans to lessen the trans fats in cooking oils.

The Globe and Mail
February 12, 2005

Drought — it's the real thing
Poor villagers in India claim that soft-drink bottling plants are causing severe water shortages. 'After Coca-Cola came here, my land has become a desert,' one farmer says, MARK WILLIAMS reports.
Mark Williams

PLACHIMADA, INDIA — As legal battles go, it could not appear more lopsided. In one corner are tribal villagers from the bottom of the Indian social hierarchy. In the other is the world's best-known brand, Coca-Cola.

Farmers near Plachimada in the southern state of Kerala, where a huge Coca-Cola plant is located, have accused Coke of parching and polluting their villages, allegations the company denies.

In a judgment expected this month, a court will decide the issue of who has control over the region's groundwater, ruling whether the villagers have the right to deny water to Coke.

The farmers say the plant, which is temporarily shut down, had been drawing up to 1.5 million litres of water a day from deep bore wells. The company says it was taking 500,000 litres.

The judgment will mark the latest skirmish in an increasingly bitter dispute. As protests have escalated, villagers and anti-globalization activists have united to launch a modern-day "Quit India" campaign against the soft-drink giant, appropriating the name of Mahatma Gandhi's 1942 call for immediate independence from British rule.

India represents Coca-Cola's fastest-growing market, expanding last year by 23 per cent.

Nevertheless, Coca-Cola and its Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Ltd., are being blamed for severe water shortages near bottling plants and for polluting the soil with the plants' effluent.

Villagers are also trying to close a plant in Mehdiganj in the northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh

A judgment in the Plachimada farmers' favour would be a major blow to the Atlanta-based multinational. While the company says it would appeal such a verdict, the largest and most technologically advanced Coke plant in India — a $25-million (U.S.) investment — could be closed for good.

A ruling against Coke also would provide a big boost to a movement seeking to empower India's most vulnerable people in the face of a rapidly spreading corporate culture.

"These companies don't operate as honest players, but are destroying our social fabric," environmental campaigner Vandana Shiva says. "If the Kerala court supports [the villagers'] fight for justice, that fight will be replicated across India. The subversion of basic rights, like those over water, by big companies will be stalled."

The Coca-Cola plant at the centre of the Plachimada confrontation sits idle amid paddy fields and coconut groves. Farmers, predominantly tribal people known as adivasis who have already been marginalized by a still-pervasive caste system, say their lives have been ruined by Coke's arrival. Villagers have been demonstrating outside the plant's gates for almost three years and vow to continue until the company packs its bags.

Sitting under his mango trees, P.V. Shahulhameed, 65, says he has little hope of a decent crop from the three acres he is cultivating with peanuts, tomatoes and chilis. Rather, he will have to rely on a son's daily labour on a neighbouring farm for survival, as his open wells are almost dry.

"The sons of the soil have every right over our air and water and land," Mr. Shahulhameed says. "But after Coca-Cola came here, my land has become a desert and we have become beggars."

The villagers have a list of grievances against the company.

Besides the lack of water, waste sludge from the plant, supplied to farmers as fertilizer, contained toxic metals such as cadmium and lead that the villagers say resulted in skin disorders.

The Central Pollution Control Board and other independent analyses found that heavy metals were present but did not warrant the material being labelled hazardous waste. The CPCB directed the Kerala State Pollution Control Board to ensure that the sludge was treated and disposed of. Coke now stores its byproducts within the plant, but locals say it has leached into the soil, contaminating drinking water.

However, it was over the supply of water that Coke had to halt its Plachimada operations in December, 2003, after the high court in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, ruled that the village council, or panchayat, had the right to deny the company access to groundwater to protect farmers.

The court ordered the company to find other sources, defining groundwater as a national resource. "Unless we can get an agreement with the panchayat that says once and for all they accept what we are doing, I don't see any reason why we would reopen that plant," says Coca-Cola Asia's communications director, David Cox.

In a further blow to Coke, a Supreme Court monitoring committee visited Plachimada last August and ordered the company to retrieve all of its waste from farmers' land and ensure that all those living around the plant had access to clean water. The committee said that since the factory opened, groundwater had become "unfit for drinking."

Mr. Cox says no one has offered "any shred of evidence to back up what they are saying."

As the world's most-visible brand name, the company is being demonized by activists to further an anti-globalization agenda, he maintains.

Coke's rival, Pepsi, has also been heavily criticized, but has aroused nowhere near as much anger.

Mr. Cox points to the presence of Indian companies operating near Plachimada that draw more water, but have not faced similar protests. "We have absolutely no interest in locating a $25-million plant over a supply of water that's going to run out," he says.

At the other end of the subcontinent from Plachimada, the water level in Amar Singh Rathor's well is also falling. In three years, the water table below his small holding in Mehdiganj, 20 kilometres from the city of Varanasi, has plummeted by 60 feet, the farmer says.

Many of Mehdiganj's 10,000 people blame a Coca-Cola plant on the edge of the village, arguing that their land and water have been polluted. Coke again denies the charges.

"If the Coca-Cola plant isn't closed, it will impossible to live here," villager Shakuntala Devi says.

Last Nov. 24, a protest outside the Mehdiganj plant turned violent when police beat back villagers attempting to break a cordon. Organizers say 2,000 people, mainly women and youths, took part, though a local journalist put the number at about 800 and Coca-Cola said it was even lower. Up to 200 demonstrators were arrested. Protests, though smaller in scale, have continued ever since.

Mr. Cox says the plants simply do not have the capacity to cause the damage to water supplies that the protesters allege. The company blames three years of poor monsoons for the shortages.

Bharat Sharma, a Delhi-based scientist with the International Water Management Institute, agrees. "If an aquifer has good recharge, then the amount of water Coca-Cola is using should not be a problem," he says.

C.R. Bijoy, a tribal-rights activist for more than 20 years, says that, even if true, it's no defence. "The fundamental question here is, who has the authority over groundwater?" he says. "We need a devolution of powers, rights over water have to be linked to the broader struggle of marginalized people. For the tribals here, it is a question of survival."

Many of the anti-Coke activists are open about their larger agenda. "After a decade of liberalization, the poorer people are more marginalized. Small producers have shut down. Every village has suffered," says Jagriti, a third-generation disciple of Gandhian self-sufficiency who like other activists has dropped her family name in an anti-caste gesture.

But the debate over the rights of the lower castes has also reached New Delhi, in part prompted by a rising tide of unrest in the so-called tribal belts, where Maoist guerrillas known as Naxalites are active in 12 states, killing police and officials. "The situation is so terrifying, the government feels it now has to create a movement for peace," C.R. Bijoy says.

A capitalist government will introduce a bill this month that would return to India's 80 million tribal people many of the rights over forest lands taken from them by the colonial-era Indian Forest Act of 1927. Tribal communities are regularly evicted to make way for major development projects like a series of dams on the Narmada River, where protests were led by Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy.

If the Kerala high court finds in favour of the villagers of Plachimada, state governments, the courts and multinationals will probably face more challenges. The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments are supposed to empower panchayats to protect the public good in the manner being tested in Kerala, but they are not in force across parts of the country and universal application could become a rallying cry.

None of this means that India is about to abandon its faith in market capitalism.

"Indians are now fully committed to the urban capitalist society. The mood among middle-class Indians is that, if this involves the sacrifice of those outside the market, those who cannot survive this kind of onslaught, so much the worse for them," says Ashish Nandy, director of Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and a leading social commentator in India.

But it's real progress, Vandana Shiva says. "Fundamental rights cannot be extinguished even if they are not put on paper. In 2005, we are undoing some of the neglect."

Mark Williams is a freelance writer based in New Delhi.

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