Cola Giants Criticised Amid India Water Crisis
NEW DELHI (AFP) – A pollution fine for Coca-Cola and an order for
PepsiCo to cut water use at factories in India have highlighted an
intensifying conflict between big business and farmers over natural
Last month, a report commissioned by the southern state of Kerala
ordered Coca-Cola to pay 47 million dollars in compensation for polluting
agricultural land and extracting too much groundwater at a bottling
A similar report submitted at the same time instructed PepsiCo to
cut groundwater use by two-thirds at its plant also in Kerala's Palakkad
The twin investigations were ordered by the Kerala government after
years of protests by farmers who say industrial projects like those
run by the soft drinks giants leave just a small fraction of water
for irrigating fields.
"Operating water-guzzling bottling plants in drought-hit areas where
farmers do not have access to water is highly unethical and criminal,"
said R. Ajayan, who is spearheading the campaign in Kerala.
A report by the World Bank released in March said about 60 percent
of aquifers in India would be in a critical condition within 15 years
if the trend of indiscriminate exploitation of ground water continued.
Farmers in Kerala close to the Coca-Cola plant, which was only open
between 1999 and 2004, say the water table dropped drastically and
a sludge containing toxic chemicals dumped by the unit seeped into
their soil making it infertile.
Similar accusations have been levelled against Coca-Cola by farmers
near bottling plants in the town of Varanasi and on the outskirts
of the desert city Jaipur.
"They have ruined our fields completely. We wait and wait for water
and what we extract is not even worth feeding the cattle," said Raghav
Govind, a farmer living near the Varanasi plant.
Coca-Cola closed its plant in Kerala after months of angry protests
-- led by the state's powerful Communist and anti-American politicians.
Environmentalists say future clashes between farmers and industry
will become increasingly fraught due to government failure to regulate
the use of water, with the country's annual consumption expected to
almost double by 2050.
Water shortages are one of the biggest issues restricting new towns
planned outside fast-growing cities such as the capital New Delhi.
"Fights over water will worsen if India does not define a clear policy
on sharing," said Ashima Roychoudhari, an environmentalist working
for the government in New Delhi.
"There has to be a point where we have to start prioritising and rationing
water to stop wastage and prevent conflicts."
Farmers who are against industries such as the bottling plants say
their opposition will not end until their demands are met.
"We will not allow factories to take water when communities do not
have enough water to sustain their lives. Agriculture is more important
than making a fizzy drink," said Nandlal Master, a community organiser
Both companies deny all the allegations, which many observers see
as politically motivated.
"Based on scientific evaluation, our Palakkad plant operations have
not been shown to be the cause of local watershed issues," Coca-Cola
said in a statement about its closed unit.
PepsiCo said its plant was a model factory and one of the most water
efficient examples of its type.
"Through innovative recycling and recharging techniques, the plant
has been able to save about 200 million litres of water in the last
four years and has also brought down the water usage by 60 percent,"
Kerala's minister for water, N.K Premchandran, who heads the panel
that issued the damning reports, vowed to pressure the conmpanies
to act -- though the fines are not legally binding as they have not
been imposed by the courts.
"In the case of Coca-Cola, they will have to allocate compensation
to the farmers, and PepsiCo should install water meters at their bottling
plant to check their daily consumption," he said.
"Granting agricultural land for the Coca-Cola plant was a mistake.
At that point we did not want to miss the industrialisation bus, but
now we have to protect the environment," he told AFP.
Premchandran said the government would not order the PepsiCo plant
to shut down as it employed more than 3,500 people.
Experts focusing on industrial policy and foreign investment said
Indian states often create the problem by hosting lavish trade fairs
to attract big companies and offering them concessions to set up businesses.
"It is not the multinational company that decides to open a unit near
a farm. The government allocates them land," said a senior official
at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry who
declined to be named.
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