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Killer Coke

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Killer Coke

Keith Hyams
April 2004
Source: The Ecologist

In the summer of 2003 Coca-Cola hit the Indian headlines after it was revealed that traces of fertilizer far in excess of acceptable limits had been found by the Centre for Science and Environment in Coke's products. Sales of its soft drinks declined across India as accusations of consumer poisoning and counter accusations of sloppy science were traded in the pages of the major Indian newspapers. That was when Indian journalists began to take an interest in Plachimada. Although the locals had been complaining for two years that the bottling plant adjacent to their village was destroying their livelihoods, their complaints had, until the national 'fertilizer in soft drinks' scare broke, largely fallen on deaf ears.

           I'm sitting opposite the large Coca-Cola bottling plant next to the village of Plachimada in Kerala, South India. Plachimada is a farming village of about eight hundred families, many of them tribal. The ugly factory looks rather out of place in such a beautiful setting, the mountains of the Western Ghats towering above in the distance. Behind me a child holds a placard which reads 'Fresh Air, Fresh Water, Our Birth Right!'. Local villagers have been keeping an ongoing vigil here for five hundred and eighteen days now, and I've come to find out why.

           Coca-Cola arrived in Plachimada three years ago. The site was selected because it had one of the most plentiful supplies of groundwater in the state and because, being situated near to the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, it provided an ideal location from which to supply soft drinks to both states. Quite why Kerela needed Coca-Cola at all was a bit of a puzzle to me: I passed stalls all over the place selling delicious freshly blended fruit juices in a multitude of flavours. They took thirty eight hectares of prime agricultural land and built a big factory which soon began turning water into fizzy pop, churning out as many as 1 224 000 bottles per day. This massive operation requires a lot of water. Around one and a half million litres of groundwater per day in fact, five times the amount of water which actually ends up in the bottles. Needless to say, Coca-Cola pays nothing to the local villagers for their precious groundwater.

           'It wasn't long after Coca-Cola arrived that our problems began', says Veloor Somindan, leader of the campaign. 'Once this district, Chittur taluk, was known as the ricebowl of Kerala. We had the most fertile soil and the best yields anywhere in the state. But now the ground is dry, rice and coconut harvests across the taluk have declined to as low as one quarter of what they once were'. Around twenty thousand farmers have seen their income plummet over the last two years. Veloor, who is married and has two daughters, tells me that he can barely afford to support his family anymore.

           It is not only the fields that have dried up. So too have the wells. Whereas, before Coca-Cola's arrival, villagers were able to draw water from wells just 150ft deep, now they often don't even get water at a depth of 500ft. But even that water is useless. A year after Coca-Cola arrived, water in the local wells turned a strange colour and villagers began complaining of fever, stomach pains, headaches and diarrhoea. Child mortality rates also increased suddenly. It was as late as 6th August 2003 that the District Medical Officer eventually told the villagers that the water in Plachimada was toxic and unsafe for drinking. Now all eight hundred families have no choice but to make a four kilometre round trip on foot, twice daily, to collect water from outside the toxic zone. It is usually the women who get shouldered with this work. They spend so much of the day collecting water that they are unable to seek other employment which could supplement the declining income that the land provides.

           No-one is totally sure what caused the poisoning of the local water supply, but all the theories on offer link the problem to Coca-Cola. Dr. Mark Chernaik, a scientist with ELAW US, a network of environmental lawyers, attributes the toxicity to the dissolution of limestone or clay as a result of the excessively rapid flow of water through the rock caused by groundwater extraction. Others claim, quite plausibly, that it is due to pollution from Coca-Cola's waste, which leeches through into the ground water.

The latter theory is particularly likely in view of Coca-Cola's criminal distribution of waste sludge to local farmers. Farmers were encouraged to spread the sludge on their land, being told that it was an excellent fertilizer which would improve their crop. This provided a cheap and convenient waste disposal mechanism for the factory. In July 2003, a sample of this 'fertilizer' was sent to a laboratory in Exeter University, U.K., by BBC presenter John Waite. Tests conducted at the lab revealed that the sludge contained dangerous levels of toxic metals including lead, cadmium, and chromium. Samples of water from local wells, in which all three metals were found to be present at levels several times higher than permissible limits, were also sent to the laboratory. David Santillo, principle scientist at the Exeter lab, states that 'The presence of high levels of lead and cadmium is of particular concern. Lead is a developmental toxin in humans, particularly noted for its ability to retard the developing nervous system. Cadmium is especially toxic to the kidney, but also to the liver. It is classified as a known human carcinogen.' In other words, Coca-Cola's 'fertilizer' was killing local people.

Shortly after the results were made public, Coca-Cola stopped dumping its sludge on local farmers. But it was too late for the water supply. Even now villagers are unable to drink or even wash in water from any wells within a two kilometer radius of the plant. 'What choice do we have but to keep up our struggle?', the villagers ask me. 'We cannot keep living the way we currently are.'

On 7th April 2003, Perumatty panchayat (the local authority) refused to renew Coca-Cola's license to operate in the area. Coca-Cola subsequently went to the High Court and had the panchayat's decision over ruled. But according to local activists, the High Court does not have the power to issue such rulings. I checked this with Clifton D' Rozario of the Alternative Legal Forum, a group of lawyers and legal experts based in Bangalore. 'The High Court ruling contravenes the spirit of the constitutional amendments brought in to enforce decentralization of powers, functions and decision making capacities,' he insisted. 'The aim of the amendments was to ensure that the panchayats could make decisions regarding the available resources in a manner that was beneficial to them. Hence Perumatty panchayat was totally within its constitutional rights to cancel Coca-Cola's license to operate in the area.'

It seems, however, that Coca-Cola, which tops the list of Foreign Direct Investment in India from the USA (previously alongside scandalised Enron), has Indian law makers in the palm of its hand. In a letter from Robert Blackwill, US ambassador to India, to Brajesh Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister of India, Blackwill wrote, 'I would like to bring to your attention, and to seek your help in resolving, a potentially serious investment problem of some significance to both our countries. The case involves Coca-Cola, one of the largest single foreign investors in India.' The 'problem' Blackwill was referring to was that Indian law stipulates that foreign companies operating in India must divest 49% of their equity stake to Indian shareholders within a few years of their entry into India. The purpose of this law was to ensure that Indians retain some control over their operations. Unhappy with any such devolution of power, Coca-Cola used a combination of intensive lobbying and covert threats to change government policy to ensure that, although Indian shareholders have a 49% stakeholding in Coke's Indian subsidiaries, they have no voting rights whatsoever. This might just about qualify as complying with the letter of the law, but it certainly doesn't comply with either the spirit of the law or the manner in which it had previously been enforced.

Faced with a company wielding this much political clout, the villagers of Plachimada know that if there is to be a change, it can only come from grassroots pressure. In recent months their struggle has intensified. On 26th January 2003, Plachimada provided the venue for the inauguration of a nationwide 'yatra' (a march cum journey) organised by the National Alliance of People's Movements which toured the whole country uniting people from diverse grassroots struggles under the banner, 'Save the Nation, Build the Nation!'. Thousands of villagers, city-dwellers, activists and concerned citizens alike travelled from Plachimada to distant corners of India, on foot, by train, in trucks and buses, united in a groundbreaking display of resistance. The diversity of languages and the array of colours was rivaled only by the number of slogans chanted by the marchers. Then on 21st September, a huge rally was held outside the factory gates with activists from across India attending, including internationally renowned environmentalist Vandana Shiva. Hundreds flocked to the rally, blocking the road and sending a strong message to Coke that they are not welcome in Plachimada. More recently, a Joint Parliamentary Committee set up by the Government of India published a report on 4th February 2004 which held Coca-Cola's Plachimada plant responsible for 'causing pollution of water, depleting ground water and reducing crop yields besides causing ailments to human beings'. In response, letters poured in to the office of the Chief Minister of Kerela from around the world, urging him to take immediate remedial action.

The police response has been firm and uncompromising. Over three hundred arrests have been made so far during the course of the struggle in Plachimada. Parallel struggles by local villagers affected by Coca-Cola's four other bottling plants across the country have been met with an even more heavy handed response. The Mehdiganj plant near Varanassi, Uttar Pradesh, which enjoys heavily subsidised electricity, stands charged with discharging toxic waste into neighbouring fields and causing a serious water shortage in the surrounding area. When around one thousand protestors held a peaceful demonstration outside the Mehdiganj plant on 10th September 2003, hundreds were beaten by Coca-Cola's security personnel. Police looked on passively whilst the attack occurred, then detained around four hundred demonstrators and kept eighty eight under arrest. Dr. Sandeep Pandey, a well known Indian activist and winner of the international Ramon Magsaysay award for service to the people, suffered injuries to his foot with an iron rod, severe baton blows on his back, and a head injury caused by a rifle butt blow.

The struggle has not, however, been without progress. When I rang the Kerala government's groundwater department, they told me that two months ago they told Coca-Cola to cut its groundwater use by half and to invest instead in rainwater harvesting. I asked the villagers whether they had been told about this, and they replied that they had not. Dr. Terry Machado, a scientist at the nearby Integrated Rural Technology Centre claims that even if they are telling the truth, such changes will be insufficient to stem the area's severe water problem. In order to provide a lasting solution to the problem, he argues, there is no other option but for Coke to heed the protestors' demand that Coca-Cola 'Quit Plachimada'. Corporate Watch India is even more skeptical. They suggest that, far from being forced to cut their extraction by the groundwater department, Coca-Cola had so depleted the groundwater levels that even they themselves are unable to extract water at previous rates. In order to make up for the shortfall, Corporate Watch claims, Coca-Cola has begun trucking in tanks of water extracted from bore wells in neighbouring villages.

Perhaps more significantly for the struggle, however, is the change in Coca-Cola's own attitude. They are clearly worried about the publicity that the Plachimada struggle has received, and the implications that this may have for their brand image. In January 2003 their website boldly asserted that 'Coca-Cola India's bottling plant in Kerala, India, has been the target of a handful of extremist protestors, alleging the company is misusing local water resources. These allegations are false. Neighbouring communities, tribal leaders, NGOs, environmental scientists and government officials have repeatedly rejected the extremists' allegations as totally groundless'.

No such brazenness anymore. Although their website still denies all the charges, it is no longer written with the air of dismissiveness of the previous version. In an attempt to reconcile the numerous discrepancies between the claims made on Coca-Cola's website and those made by local villagers, activists, and NGOs, I tried to speak directly to the company. Despite several attempts to contact various senior employees in India, Coca-Cola repeatedly declined to answer any of my questions. The plant manager at Plachimada referred me to the President of corporate communications who referred me to the Vice-President who apologised that he was unavailable for comment on each of the several occasions on which I called him. I began to understand how frustrated the local villagers must be when they attempt to speak directly to Coke about their problems. Yet it was clear that Coca-Cola is feeling the heat. There is still a long way to go to bring justice to the people of Plachimada and Chittur taluk, but if Coca-Cola begins to worry that its international brand name is at stake then there is every reason to believe that the struggle will be successful.

In fact, the pressure has been mounting for some time. Coke's reputation has already been seriously tarnished after a lawsuit filed in Florida in July 2001 charged the company with using paramilitary death squads in Columbia to murder, torture, kidnap and threaten union leaders in order to disband the workers' union SINALTRAINAL at its Columbian bottling plants. A call from the Columbia Action Network to boycott Coca-Cola in the light of its involvement in the killings resulted in a national student campaign in the USA to 'kick Coke off campus', with several successes. A further blow came when Coke was targeted by campaigners for discriminating against HIV positive employees in its African plants. And in May 2003, Coca-Cola was fined US$300 000 for polluting the Matasnillo River in Panama.

The 2004 World Social Forum, the largest annual summit of activists, NGOs and grassroots campaigners from around the world, was held in February in Mumbai, not all that far from Plachimada itself. At the Forum people met and shared their experiences of Coca-Cola's malpractices in different countries. A call was put out for a concerted global campaign to boycott Coke and to get all soft drinks manufacturers to clean up their acts and respect the rights and livelihoods of those affected by their activities. It's time for Coca-Cola's abuses to stop.

       Just one thing though. Don't start drinking Pepsi instead of Coke. They're busily draining the groundwater down the road in Kanjikoe…



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