Coca-Cola and Its No. 1 Anti-Fan
By Tripti Lahiri
Wall Street Journal Blog
April 21, 2010

Into every shareholders meeting, some rabble-rousers must fall. Sometimes, it’s the same one again and again. On Wednesday, for the seventh time in as many years, Amit Srivastava, of the India Resource Center, plans to speak up at a Coca-Cola shareholders meeting in Atlanta to draw attention to what he says is a pattern of water over-use in India.

Mr. Srivastava has been on Coke’s case since at least 2002. This year he’s got some fresh material. In March a government-appointed committee in Kerala recommended that the state claim the equivalent of $48 million in environmental damages from Coca-Cola India. The state government shut down a bottling plant there in 2004 after still-unproven complaints that the facility was using up local groundwater supplies.

“Numerous investigations by the government of Kerala – based on sound scientific evidence – have shown that the Coca-Cola system is NOT the cause of local watershed issues,” said Coca-Cola India in a statement Wednesday. “It is our view that any government committee or panel reviewing claims should first determine through an established process of law whether any damage was caused to the residents of Palakkad, and second, if such damage was caused, who was responsible.”

It must be tough when you’ve devoted so much time to fighting a company that it doesn’t seem to make that much difference. According to earnings figures reported by Coca-Cola on Monday, the company saw 29% growth in unit case volume in India in the first quarter of 2010. But Mr. Srivastava doesn’t seem disheartened.

“It’s only a matter of time before we win,” said Mr. Srivastava, who wants the company to permanently shut three of its 56 bottling facilities – the one in Kerala, one near the city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and another one in the desert state of Rajasthan, at Kala Dera. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Coca-Cola has done wrong by locating its plants in water-stressed areas.”

Coca Cola denies the allegations that it is careless in its water use in India.

“Our goal in India is to be a ‘net zero’ user of groundwater,” the company said Wednesday. “By the end of 2009, we had achieved a recharge rate of 93 percent of the groundwater that we use throughout India and we aim to achieve a net zero balance at the end of 2010.”

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