Coca-Cola Spins Out of Control in India
Farmers in India are delighted that they have finally found a use
for Coca-Cola - as pesticide! News from farmers in Andhra Pradesh
and Chattisgarh has confirmed that hundreds of farmers are spraying
Coca-Cola directly on their crops, with amazing success. Using Coke
to destroy pests is also more cost-effective than using other branded
pesticides, and forecasts are that soon, thousands of farmers in India
will be using Coca-Cola as pesticide.
This is another goodwill gesture, perhaps, on Coca-Cola's part. This
is the same company that was in the habit of distributing its toxic waste (containing lead and cadmium, as confirmed by BBC), as a gesture
of goodwill to farmers around its bottling facilities in Kerala and
Uttar Pradesh. It stopped the practice only when ordered to do so
by the government.
While the new found use of Coca-Cola as pesticide may increase its
sales in India, it is doubtful that it will be able to generate the
kind of profits that Coca-Cola is looking for in Indian markets. Coca-Cola
has had a disastrous financial year, and recent reports have announced
that Coca-Cola is in a slump, primarily because its markets in the
US and EU are rapidly eroding as consumers get health conscious and
obesity becomes a national epidemic. Failing to realize, once again,
that what's bad for Western consumers, is also bad for consumers in
developing countries, Neville Isdell, the new CEO of Coca-Cola, has
announced that it will be focusing its efforts on growing markets
in India, China, Brazil and Russia. Such double standards, akin to
the tobacco industry moving its marketing focus to developing countries
once it was heavily regulated in the US, are not new for Coca-Cola.
In September 2003, tests conducted on random samples of Coca-Cola
products in the Indian market consistently found high levels of pesticides,
including DDT, lindane and malathion, in the Coca-Cola products, sometimes
as high as 30 times more than those allowed by US and EU standards.
Coca-Cola claims that it did not break any laws (which is technically
correct because India did not have laws regulating contaminants in
soft drinks at the time). However, our request to Coca-Cola to share
the research they must have done to convince themselves that the average
Indian can consume poisons 30 times more safely than the average American
or European have gone unanswered to date.
Communities across India are under assault from Coca-Cola practices
in the country. A pattern has emerged as a result of Coca-Cola's bottling
operations in India.
- Communities across India living around Coca-Cola's bottling
plants are experiencing severe water shortages, directly as a
result of Coca-Cola's massive extraction of water from the common
groundwater resource. The wells have run dry and the hand water
pumps do not work any more. Various studies, including one by
the Central Ground Water Board in India, have confirmed the significant
depletion of the water table.
- When the water is extracted from the common groundwater resource
by digging deeper, the water smells and tastes strange. Coca-Cola
has been indiscriminately discharging its waste water into the
fields around its plant and sometimes into rivers, including the
Ganges, in the area. The result has been that the groundwater
has been polluted as well as the soil. Public health authorities
have posted signs around wells and hand pumps advising the community
that the water is unfit for human consumption.
- In two communities, Plachimada and Mehdiganj, Coca-Cola was
distributing its solid waste to farmers in the area as "fertilizer".
Tests conducted by the BBC found cadmium and lead in the waste,
effectively making the waste toxic waste. Coca-Cola stopped the
practice of distributing its toxic waste only when ordered to
do so by the state government.
- Tests conducted by a variety of agencies, including the government
of India, confirmed that Coca-Cola products contained high levels
of pesticides, and as a result, the Parliament of India has banned
the sale of Coca-Cola in its cafeteria. However, Coca-Cola not
only continues to sell drinks laced with poisons in India (that
could never be sold in the US and EU), it is also introducing
new products in the Indian market. And as if selling drinks with
DDT and other pesticides to Indians was not enough, one of Coca-Cola's
latest bottling facilities to open in India, in Ballia, is located
in an area with a severe contamination of arsenic in its groundwater.
Destroying Lives, Livelihoods and Communities
Water shortages, pollution of groundwater and soil, exposure to toxic
waste and pesticides is having impacts of massive proportions in India.
In a country where over 70% of the population makes a living related
to agriculture, stealing the water and poisoning the water and soil
is a sure recipe for disaster. Thousands of farmers in India have
been affected by Coca-Cola's practices, and Coca-Cola is guilty of
destroying the livelihoods of thousands of people in India. Unfortunately,
we do not even know the extent of the damage as a result from exposure
to the toxic waste and pesticides as these are long term problems.
Most affected are the marginalized communities such as the Adivasis
(Indigenous People's) and Dalits (formerly untouchables), as
well as the low-income communities, landless agricultural workers
and women. Taken in its entirety, that's a lot of people in India.
Coca-Cola is destroying the food security of the people of the land,
and by stealing the water and poisoning the water and soil, it is
also responsible for ensuring a life of misery for future generations
The irony is that most of the impacted community members, who are
feeling the brunt of the water shortages and pollution, are unable
to afford Coca-Cola. Which may be a good thing given that the product
itself is poisonous. But it also raises the larger question of development
in India. As is the case with the majority of other commodities in
the Indian marketplace, only a fraction of the population are the
"beneficiaries" of the current development policies. And unfortunately,
the majority are not only left out of the so called "development"
process, but they have to pay a high price for it as well.
The arrogance of Coca-Cola in India is not going unanswered. In fact,
the growing opposition to Coca-Cola- primarily from Coca-Cola affected
communities- has spread so rapidly and gained so much strength that
Coca-Cola is now on the defensive.
Kala Dera, Rajasthan
In the state of Rajasthan, the High Court ruled in November 2004 that
all soft drinks in the state must state the level of pesticides on
the product label, in addition to the ingredients. This unprecedented
ruling came only three weeks after a 2,000 strong demonstration to
shut down the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Kala Dera, on the outskirts
of Jaipur in Rajasthan. Over 50 villages are experiencing water shortages
as a result of Coca-Cola's indiscriminate mining of water, and "struggle
committees" have been formed in at least 32 villages to confront Coca-Cola's
abuses. The Central Ground Water Board, a government agency, not only
confirmed the declining water table as a result of Coca-Cola's indiscriminate
mining of the water, it also faulted Coca-Cola for creating "ecological
imbalances" in the area.
In response to the court order to state the level of pesticides on
their labels, Coca-Cola appealed the decision on the grounds that
such an action would force them to compromise with their "commercial
confidentiality"! Coca-Cola also submitted to the court that small
traces of DDT and other pesticides are not harmful "to the health
of the consumers." The court rejected the appeal, and significantly,
stated that "commercial interests are subservient to fundamental rights."
The single largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in India, in Plachimada,
Kerala, remains shut down since March 2004. Initially ordered to shut
down until June 15 (for arrival of monsoon rains) by the state government
to ease drought conditions, the Plachimada bottling plant has been
unable to open because the local village council (panchayat)
is REFUSING to reissue Coca-Cola a license to operate. The village
council has maintained that the plant needs to shut down because it
has destroyed the water system in the area as well as polluted the
The panchayat is an elected body at the most local level in
India, and forms the building block of democracy in India - Panchayat
Raj- a model promoted extensively by Mahatma Gandhi. Coca-Cola,
in typical fashion, has chosen to undermine democracy by appealing
to the courts that the panchayat has no jurisdiction over the
plant and Coca-Cola, and that it should be the state of Kerala that
makes the decision. Coca-Cola's efforts to undermine local governance
is being followed closely as the court ruling in favor of the panchayat
could set a significant precedence for local governance.
The struggle in Plachimada is the oldest struggle against Coca-Cola
in India and there has been a 24/7 vigil directly in front of the
factory gates since April 22, 2002. The struggle in Plachimada has
also enjoyed significant victories. In December 2003, the High court,
in an extremely significant decision, ruled that Coca-Cola HAD to
seek alternative sources of water and that it could extract only as
much water from the common groundwater resource as a farmer owning
34 acres of land could. The justification being that the plant is
located on 34 acres. Furthermore, the court held that the groundwater
belonged to the people and the Government had no right to allow a
private party to extract such a huge quantity of ground water which
was "a property held by it in trust''.
In another significant action in August, 2004, the Kerala State Pollution
Control Board (PCB), acting upon a Supreme court order, directed the
Coca-Cola company to ensure that water supply through pipeline is
delivered to the houses of all the affected communities in the vicinity.
While the various court and government agencies are validating and
acting upon the community concerns, Coca-Cola is busy putting more
money into a public relations strategy designed to convince everyone
that they have nothing to do with the water scarcity and pollution
in Plachimada and in India.
Mehdiganj, Uttar Pradesh
More so than other struggles against Coca-Cola in India, the communities
in Mehdiganj, a village about 20 kms from the holy city of Varanasi,
have more of an uphill battle because the local and state officials
are turning a blind eye to the concerns of the communities. So far.
The water table has declined between 25-40 feet in the last four years,
and Coca-Cola has been discharging its waste water into the surrounding
fields, and now into a canal that feeds into the river Ganges, a holy
river for millions of Indian. The landscape is very rural, and farming
is the main source of livelihood in the area. Many farmers have yet
to be compensated for the land that was taken from them in order to
build the Coca-Cola bottling facility.
The movement to shut down the Coca-Cola plant has been growing rapidly
for the last year. In August 2003, community members entered the office
of the Regional Pollution Control Board in Varanasi, and to protest
their inaction, dumped sacks full of sludge from the Coca-Cola plant
on the table of the regional officer. In September 2003, over 500
people marched to the Coca-Cola factory gates and were physically
attacked and beaten by police and private security guards. In October
2003, a march was organized from the Coke plant in Mehdiganj to a
Pepsi plant in Jaunpur, about 150 km away. And in mid-December 2003,
ten activists went on a five-day hunger strike in front of the plant.
They were supported by fifty people sitting with them each day, and
about 300 people went on hunger strikes of varied duration. And in
June 2004, hundreds conducted a sit-in in front of the state assembly
So far, not only have the authorities not cooperated at all, they
have consistently refused to make good on their promises of inquiries
and investigations to look into Coca-Cola's practices that are depleting
the groundwater and polluting the water and soil. In addition, the
authorities have trumped up criminal charges against some of the key
leaders of the struggle, and issued orders to these leaders preventing
them from "shouting slogans or making inflammatory speeches … within
300 meters of the plant".
The communities are determined to close down the factory in Mehdiganj,
and the local organizers have been extremely successful in garnering
local support in the area. They have also organized the community
around a new Coca-Cola plant in Balia, about 250 kms away. From November
15-24, 2004, a march will be conducted from the Coca-Cola factory
gates in Balia to the Coca-Cola factory gates in Mehdiganj, demanding
the closure of both the facilities.
The resilience and determination of the community in Mehdiganj is
paying off, and Coca-Cola has a full fledged problem in its hand.
Coca-Cola has decided that the problems in India are a public relations
problem, and that they will "spin" them away. Coca-Cola has hired
a public relations firm, Perfect Relations, to develop a new image
for them in India. The head of communications for Coca-Cola Asia has
been moved to India from Hong Kong to try to deal, in a PR way, with
the growing resistance.
Neville Isdell, the new CEO of Coca-Cola who assumed office in April
2004, chose India as the first country to visit after assuming office.
However, it was a "stealth" visit, and was discovered by Indian journalists
only when they pried about it. Isdell was rightly concerned that a
public announcement of Coca-Cola's top man to India would be met with
a sizeable protest.
Coca-Cola has also just announced plans to significantly increase
the marketing budget in India from next year.
No matter of spin and increased marketing for Coca-Cola will solve
the problems that have been created by Coca-Cola in India. The first
step that Coca-Cola must take is to admit to the severity of problems
it has caused in India, and then find ways to address them operationally:
Anything short of the above measures will make it increasingly difficult
for Coca-Cola to do business in India. And elsewhere.
Amit Srivastava is the coordinator of India Resource Center.
- They must permanently shut down the bottling facilities in Mehdiganj,
Kala Dera and Plachimada.
- They must compensate the affected community members.
- They must recharge the depleted groundwater
- They must clean up the contaminated water and soil.
- They must ensure that workers laid off as a result of Coca-Cola's
negligence are retrained and relocated in a more sustainable industry.
- They must admit liability for the long term consequences of
exposure to toxic waste and pesticide laden drinks in India.
PRESS: Coca-Cola Forced to Abandon $25 Million Project in India
PRESS: Coca-Cola Expansion Plans Rejected
PRESS: Coca-Cola Plant Shut Down in India, Authorities Cancel License
STUDY: Coca-Cola’s Operations in India Lead to “Tragedy of the Commons”
PRESS: 15 Village Councils Reject Coca-Cola Plans as Opposition Grows
Mehdiganj - The Issues
PRESS: Coca-Cola Expansion Plan Opposed in Mehdiganj, India