Coca-Cola Suspected of Sucking the Land Dry
Amrit Dhillon
South China Morning Post
March 28, 2010

With his leathery, lined face, Bansidhar Sharma, 66, looks as prematurely aged as most Indian farmers except that one niggling worry has given him a few extra furrows: how can he grow his crops and feed his cattle when his land in Kala Dera, in Rajasthan, is running out of water?

Sharma's 10 hectare farm is a short distance away from a controversial Coca-Cola bottling plant which is blamed by farmers for contributing to the water shortage by pushing down the water table in an area that is semi-arid, enjoys very little rainfall and is prone to drought.

He gestures towards his wheat and barley fields and buffaloes. "My crops and my cattle are my only wealth. I am nothing without them. To survive they need water and water is running out," he says.

Next to the field of green barley, the adjoining field is dry, brown, dusty, scorched. Dotted with acacia trees and thorny bushes, Sharma's grandchildren and other local children play cricket on it.

With the water table falling approximately six metres every year (farmers say they are digging bore wells as deep as 45 metres), the Sharmas no longer have enough water to grow crops on all 10 hectares, which is why this field and others lie unsown.

Sharma's son, Jagdish, 36, remembers being able to peer into the family well and see water in it. "Ever since Coca-Cola came, we have to keep going deeper and deeper to extract water. Even at 45 to 60 metres down, we don't get water. Before Coca-Cola came, the water table used to sink every year but only by a couple of feet. Now it's five to six metres," he says.

The Central Groundwater Board last year confirmed that between 2007 and 2008, groundwater levels in Kala Dera plummeted six metres, confirming the grumbling heard in every village in a 5 sq km radius around the gigantic plant.

The Central Groundwater Board said earlier this month (see graph) that groundwater levels in Kala Dera fell precipitously again, by 4.25 metres between August 2008 and August last year.

Activists say the latest drop is alarming given last year's six-metre drop. "Kala Dera has never experienced such sharp drops in groundwater levels, and such precipitous drops have become common since Coca-Cola started its bottling operations in 2000," says Amit Srivastava, co-ordinator of the India Resource Centre, an environmental charity which has led the campaign against Coca-Cola.

Farmers here do not blame the bottling plant for being solely responsible for the water shortage - poor rainfall is a factor too - but for contributing substantially to the depletion of the water table.

Mr Srivastava points out that in the nine years prior to Coca-Cola's bottling operations in Kala Dera groundwater levels fell just three metres. In the nine years since Coca-Cola has been operating in Kala Dera, the groundwater levels have dropped 22.36 metres.

Coca-Cola denies these claims, saying it uses only a tiny fraction of the available water - about 1 per cent - for its bottling plant. A spokesman for Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverage says the plant has improved its water-use ratios by more than 25 per cent in the past five years. "We are continuously focusing on reducing and recycling the water used for our bottling operations. In 2009, we have reduced our water use ratio for the Kala Dera plant to 2.11 litres of water for each litre of finished beverage," the spokesman says.

The very choice of the site of the bottling plant is odd. Rajasthan is a desert state, known for its meagre rainfall. When the monsoon fails, drought stalks the villages as crops and cattle die.

For a region that is dependent on groundwater, the plant is accused of bringing disaster to the 20,000-odd villagers in Kala Dera who have seen their crops wither and their livelihoods shrink.

By sowing only half their land, owing to the shortage of water, their crops of wheat, mustard or barley are halved. That halves their income from the sale of these crops.

With insufficient water, they cannot grow the fodder they need for their cattle, compelling them to buy fodder from the market and keep fewer cows and buffaloes.

"I used to sell 100 litres of milk from my cows," says Kanhiyalal Yadav, 40, whose farm is near the Sharmas'. "Now I keep only a handful of cows because I can't afford to buy the cattle feed."

Coca-Cola's name is mentioned in these villages in tones of frustrated loathing. The plant, set up in 2000, is seen as a monster burrowing deep into the ground to extract millions of litres of water for its bottling operations, depriving farmers who need this precious resource to keep hunger at bay.

Outside the plant, guards refuse to allow photographs or let anyone in. Trucks are parked untidily, at strange angles, outside the gates, almost as though to obscure the tiny Coca-Cola sign. A high perimeter wall with barbed wire surrounds the plant.

The anger in the villages around the plant is more intense this year because last year's monsoon was feeble and delayed.

"I see disaster ahead," says Mahesh Yogi, of the Jan Sangharsh Samiti, a local group that has been agitating to force Coca-Cola to close down the plant.

"If we go on at this rate, soon we'll be digging down to 70 to 75 metres to get water. We'll hit rocks, not water. Crops are already failing. With no water, there will be an exodus from the land."

Under fire from people such as Yogi and other environmentalists in India, Coca-Cola contracted The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), which is based in Delhi, to research the impact its bottling plants were having on local communities.

Studying plants across India in 2008, Teri concluded that the Kala Dera plant was a "significant" contributor to the water shortages in Kala Dera and should stop using groundwater because of the damage it was doing.

Teri recommended the plant be shut down, or else ship in bottled water, which would be hugely expensive. Alternatively, the Teri report recommended, the plant should collect and use rainwater.

Coca-Cola has ignored Teri's recommendation. Last year, India experienced its worst drought in the past 40 years, and Kala Dera was officially declared a drought-hit area.

Coca-Cola officials suggest that groundwater levels have increased as a result of their rainwater-harvesting structures in the area. But a visit to these structures found them ill maintained and not functional. One water-harvesting structure was empty and parched, with only a small, scummy puddle of water in it. Locals say the design is totally flawed, so that rainwater (on the rare occasion that it rains) simply runs off instead of flowing down from a higher level into the collection area below.

The Teri study also found all Coca-Cola rainwater-harvesting projects to be in a "dilapidated" condition.

"Why doesn't the company set up rainwater harvesting in its own premises," asks a hydrogeologist in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. "If it's serious about water conservation, it should establish a rooftop rainwater-harvesting plant in its factory building."

The company says it is working with local farmers on water and energy efficiency. "We have worked with the local government and local groups to install 188 drip-irrigation projects in Kala Dera covering 94 hectares of agricultural land and benefiting as many families," the spokesman says.

But local communities remain unconvinced, staging protests against Coca-Cola right across India. At the other end of India, in the southern state of Kerala, a state government panel has ordered Coca-Cola to pay a US$14 million fine for damage to the water and soil around its plant at Palakkad, which closed in 2005.

The panel was responding to a government report that the plant had pushed the groundwater level down and harmed farming and the environment by the dumping of solid waste. The plant, opened in 2000, closed because of local anger.

Coca-Cola has rejected the report, saying it was based on the "unproven assumption" that the company had caused damage in the area.

No matter how many controversies engulf the company, however, not many seem to gain traction. The Kala Dera farmers' protests to force the closure of the plant have failed.

The stories doing the rounds on why their efforts have failed range from Coca-Cola having "informers" who report everything that is discussed in the villages to claims that any farmer who plans to lead an agitation is bought off.

Jan Sangharsh Samiti now plans to petition the Rajasthan chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, demanding action against Coca-Cola. "People looking at the latest graph are stunned this time. Politicians are beginning to wake up and pay attention to this and I'm hoping they will act," Srivastava, of the India Resource Centre, says.

At present, though, the mood is overwhelmingly one of resignation. As Yadav walks past a mound of fodder that he has been forced to buy with his limited resources, instead of growing it as he used to, he shrugs his shoulders when asked if the petition will succeed.

"I don't know. I think Coca-Cola will leave Kala Dera one day. But it will only be when they have finished all the water here," he said.

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