Coke in Varanasi: Facing Local Ire

By Aflatoon
India Resource Center
July 10, 2003

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has directed its Regional Officer in Uttar Pradesh to enquire and take action on a report by Aflatoon, State General Secretary of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, detailing the pollution caused by Bharat Coca Cola Bottling North East Private Limited - an Indian arm of Coca Cola - in Mehdiganj, Uttar Pradesh, 20 km from the holy city of Varanasi. This significant development on 26th June, 2003, is an outcome of sustained protests against Coca Cola.

Anti Coca-Cola Protest in Mehdiganj
Anti Coca-Cola Protest in Mehdiganj

On the 10th of May, 2003 about 100 people held a demonstration at the plant gate. Nearly 200 police personnel were deputed by the district authorities to 'protect' the plant along with 50 gun toting private security guards. While this agitation was suppressed by beating up the demonstrators to disperse them, local inhabitants are geared for a long struggle against the cola giant.

Village level meetings and training of youth for non-violent direct action are underway. Sajha Sanskriti Manch -- a platform comprising the Samajwadi Jan Parishad and several other peoples organizations, women's groups and human rights organizations in Varanasi -- has submitted a memorandum to the District Magistrate, demanding cancellation of the industrial license of the bottling plant. About 300 activists of the Manch demonstrated again on July 4th at the district headquarters to demand cancellation of the license of the Coke bottling plant. Despite the rain, the activists, who had come on bicycles from surrounding rural areas, went ahead with the protest action.

Pressure has been building up since early May when a local court found the company guilty of evading payment of land revenue worth Rs 1,50,7500 [US$ 31,406]. An equal amount of penalty -- under Section 47 A of Indian Stamps Act -- has also been imposed on the company. The case, filed in April 2001 by the Uttar Pradesh Government, was the outcome of lobbying by local residents. The verdict takes note of the fact that the company has illegally occupied a portion of Common Property Resources of the village. To add insult to injury, the company enjoys subsidized rates for electricity since this illegally occupied land is agricultural land.

Coca Cola, which left India in 1977 when it was asked to reduce foreign equity, came back to India about two decades later when it took over the Parle soft drinks plant of Kejriwal Beverages Pvt. Ltd. which was bottling Thums Up, Limca and Gold Spot. The plant, built in 1995 on almost seven acres of agricultural land in Mehdiganj was taken over by Bharat Coca Cola Bottling North East Private Limited in February 1999.

The plant does not draw electricity from the Power Grid Corporation, but functions on power generated by two massive diesel generators. One of the generators consumes 360 liters of diesel per hour. Two tube wells run 24 hours to draw hundreds of thousands of liters of ground water. Every hour, a truck carrying 550 crates of bottled soft drinks leaves the factory premises. The plant has about 60 permanent employees and almost 400 contracted labor. The salary of the general manager of the plant is Rs 120,000 per month (approximately US$ 2400) whereas a worker gets Rs. 66 (about US $ 1.3 per day). Many of the workers are weavers who were rendered jobless when power-looms gradually replaced handlooms for weaving the famous Benarasi sarees. Local residents say that young people of the village were promised permanent jobs, but these promises were not kept.

The plant was disposing its effluent into the nearby canal which emptied into the River Ganga. Since the past few months however, the hazardous nature of the waste became apparent when due to construction of a super highway, the pipes to the canal were dislodged and the factory began to dispose toxic industrial waste into the neighboring fields and mango groves. Coca Cola officials claim that the plant is fitted with eco filters but residents allege that the waste is hazardous in nature. Solid chemical waste is also being dumped in nearby fields. The total area submerged by the factory waste is about 20 acres. Grass in the submerged area, as well as crops of wheat, paddy and chickpeas have been destroyed. Some huge trees, including neem trees, have also dried up. Additionally, the polluted water causes rashes on human skin, say local residents. Polluted water stagnating in the fields has become a breeding ground for malaria spreading mosquitoes.

Heavy consumption of groundwater by the company has lead to lowering of the groundwater level from 15 to 40 feet. Drinking water was earlier supplied through a pipeline from neighboring Bhikharipur on the other side of the highway. This was disrupted due to construction of the Golden Quadrangle the World Bank funded super-highway linking the metropolitan cities. Villagers are now totally dependent on hand pumps for their daily needs, and are thus directly impacted by the water scarcity.

The villagers ire is fueled by their assessment that some political leaders have been instrumental in helping the company's illegal work by pressurizing local administrators. Local people allege that they received large sums of money from the company for such favors. The public relations exercises of the Coca Cola Company has further incensed local residents. For instance, the company once sent its bus to bring the neighborhood school children for a visit to the plant with an offer of serving them free Coke, but the school authorities refused. The local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) distributed pencils and erasers in Fanta cans to schoolchildren. Three tricycles for physically handicapped have been distributed by the local M.L.A. These tri cycles carry Coca Cola iceboxes fitted on them.

Efforts to organize the contract workers have so far met with oppressive measures. Five workers were imprisoned on false criminal charges filed by the company. Destruction caused by the pollution from the factory has galvanized local farmers to organize themselves and declare 'Coca Cola Bhagao, Gaon Bachao' (Save the Village, Chase Away Coke). They have sent petitions to all concerned authorities from the local District Magistrate to the President of India. Organizations like Samajwadi Jan Parishad, Lok Samiti and Sajha Sanskriti Manch have sustained the pressure, forcing Coke to respond. The company has now started construction of a kilometer-long pipeline to dispose waste. With the CPCB also inquiring into the matter, it looks like Coke may have to make more drastic changes than mere public relations exercises.

Aflatoon is the State General Secretary of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad.

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