Coke Lacks Fizz for Farmers in Mehdiganj

By Nagraj Adve
India Resource Center
October 23, 2004

This is where Huien Tsang traveled and Adi Shankara taught. A region of such hallowed antiquity near the Ganga, a river considered so sacred that most people here --however secular or laconic-- add the respectful "ji". In a region such as this, a Coca-Cola plant is busy lowering the tone. And the water.

In the fields just outside the large Coca-Cola plant at Mehdiganj, a village 20 km from Varanasi, little has grown over the last four years. In 2000, the Coca-Cola plant began to discharge liquid effluent in the fields behind the plant, and affected about 20 acres. A small landowner who owns a bigha (two-thirds of an acre) of land just next to the boundary wall of the plant said that rice and wheat used to grow on his small plot of land, but now nothing grows there. A more prosperous farmer, Rajendra Pandey, who sold some of his land to the Coca-Cola plant, and who owns dozens of mango trees in a grove next to the plant, told this reporter, "There have been no mangoes in the last four years. They dry up in the flowering stage itself, before they can bear fruit. Our family has lost thousands of rupees each year." This year, crops have begun growing again, but only partially.

Poisoned Harvests

In breathtaking arrogance, the company dumped sludge into the fields around. People began to develop sores on their feet after they walked through the discharged water that had been flooding their fields. Mosquitoes became a serious menace and malaria cases increased. Many said that some hand-pumps in the area have been emitting foul, non-potable water.

When this first began to affect residents of Mehdiganj, some of them got together in 2000 and formed the non-party Gaon Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (GBSS - Struggle Committee to Save the Village). Raj Narain Patel, a founder of the GBSS says that for the first two to three years, the GBSS petitioned the District Magistrate (DM), the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, and to the President of India. The sarpanch (village head) of the panchayat (village council), Ram Jivaon Patel, wrote to the District Magistrate on 19 February 2003, saying, "it will affect our fields, our vegetables, and there is the fear of disease".

Coca-Cola officials declined to speak. This reporter was also refused entry into the plant. But S.B. Franklin, Assistant Scientific Officer in the Regional Office of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (PCB) in Varanasi denied that the discharge by the plant was toxic. "The Coca-Cola plant has an effluent treatment plant (ETP), and the sludge from the ETP is being stored within the plant premises." However, according to another PCB official T. N. Singh, "the sludge has been found to be non-hazardous, and they have permission to dump it anywhere." The mango groves and fields were affected, Singh says, not because the water was polluted, but due to water logging.

"When we were told this, we asked these officials to come and stand in the water for ten minutes. They fell silent," says Nandlal Master, a resident of Mehdiganj and an activist with Lok Samiti, a local NGO. Nor does the PCB response answer the question as to why no compensation has been paid to those affected, despite repeated requests to authority.

In May 2003, GBSS, along with Lok Samiti and other organizations held a sit-in outside the plant for two weeks, and lifted it only after Coca-Cola drew the water out with a motor. But the sludge continued to be dumped, and the agitation picked up again in two months. On 25 August 2003, a number of local villagers, led by activists of Lok Samiti, National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), Samajwadi Jan Parishad and others entered the office of the Regional Pollution Control Board in Varanasi, and in protest dumped sacks full of sludge from the Coca-Cola plant on the table of the regional officer. In a letter to the regional office, they demanded that: "the license of the Coca-Cola plant be cancelled; that those affected be paid compensation; and that an enquiry be held under law". None of these have been done. According to Franklin, the sludge is now being stored within the plant, and the wastewater is being directed into a canal that flows into the Ganga. Whether that canal is used for irrigation downstream is anybody's guess.

A Beleaguered Land

The Coca-Cola plant has added to the misery of a populace already reeling under a declining economy. Besides agricultural work, this region has traditionally been producing the renowned Banarasi silk sarees woven on handlooms. Every third household in Mehdiganj has a handloom unit, with children regularly employed for the deftness of their fingers, at a pathetic Rs 20 (40 cents) a day. But many handloom units have closed down in recent years, in the face of power-looms producing cheaper sarees elsewhere.

Anti Coca-Cola Protest in Mehdiganj
Rally Against Coca-Cola in Mehdiganj
Mehdiganj village is just off the Grand Trunk (G.T.) Road, the legendary highway developed by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century, and which the central government is currently expanding as part of its "Golden Quadrilateral" project. It's a large village, with about 10,000 residents, and dominated, both numerically and in control over land, by Patels (Kurmis). The Kurmi party, Apna Dal, won the seat here in the last assembly elections. There are some Yadavs, Brahmins, Muslim households, and Dalit castes - Chamars, and the extremely impoverished Musahars. Most landholdings here are small, less than three acres. Rice, wheat, arhar (lentils), brinjal, kathal (jack fruit) and mangoes grow here abundantly.

The Coca-Cola plant that is the target of local people's ire - for many reasons as we shall see - is on the G.T. Road itself. As such the plant is located on prime property. Now known as Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, it is actually an earlier existing plant that used to manufacture Parle products and was known as Kejriwal Beverages Pvt. Limited. Coca-Cola bought over Parle plants all over India in the mid-nineties, and took over this plant in 1999.

Besides buying land from private landowners, the Kejriwal plant had usurped over 11 bissas (or 33 decimals, one-third of an acre) of gram sabha land or common lands used for pasture or to set up schools or for other such collective use. In the records, this land is referred to as Rakwa no. 2634. It also blocked three chak roads (approach roads) used by residents of the Kumhar basti just behind the plant. Some villagers had filed a case about common lands being taken and there was a halt on production for six months some years ago. But political pressure was applied, and the stay was later vacated. When it took over Kejriwal, Coca-Cola promised alternative land, but even that, say local activists, is within the precincts of the walled boundaries of the Coca-Cola plant. No "no-objection-certificate" (NOC) has ever been issued by the panchayat, the sarpanch who has occupied that office for the last 10 years said.

Disappearing Water

But a far more pressing issue in the area, currently and in the future, is declining ground water, which has fallen anywhere between 25-40 feet in the last four years. "Ever since Coca-Cola began production, every year there's been a fall of ten feet," says Raj Narain Patel of the GBSS. During the monsoons four years ago, the water levels used to be at ten feet. Now it is at 50 feet." "My well never used to dry up. Now it's been dry for the last three years," said Jairam Patel, a farmer. And as we peered into her well in another part of Mehdiganj, Sulabhi said, "We have stopped using the motor to draw water from this well for agriculture. The only water in this well is rainwater. If we use the motor, there will be no water left for drinking." She now buys water for her fields from a large landowner at Rs 20 (40 cents) an hour.

The immediate consequence of falling ground water is having to use motors for much longer periods to irrigate fields. Thanks to electricity rates being fixed per month, that has not led to higher electricity bills. But the pressure of the water is much less than earlier. The amount of time it takes to irrigate a fixed amount of land has doubled and some. With falling water, the land is less moist and it's affecting agricultural productivity badly.

The situation has hardly been improved by the fact that a canal that runs through this village has also been dry this year. And made even worse by a failed monsoon in the region in 2004, reported numerous people interviewed. Two days later, the point about the disappointing monsoon was made to this reporter differently, in a different place, by a boatman on the Ganga. As our boat drifted past the Tulsi Ghat, where Tulsidas wrote the Ramcharitramanas in the early 1600s, the river was some feet lower this year, he said.

Coca-Cola continues to draw out groundwater at an alarming rate for six months a year, when production is at full tilt. "Now that the monsoon has failed here, people will understand what Coca-Cola is doing," said Satnarain Vishwakarma, a local resident. Bhagwan Das Yadav, who worked at the plant from its inception and was dismissed for organizing the workers (see box), said they used to produce between 8,000-11,000 crates of Coca-Cola in an 8-hour shift. Each crate has 24 bottles, of 300 ml, and six bottles to a crate if they are 1 liter bottles. Never, in the years he worked in the plant, were there less than 8,000 crates produced in 8 hours and even that happened only if there was a break-down in machinery. Usually it was more, and they received a small bonus if workers in a shift reached the target of 11,000 crates. Every day, 24 hours a day, with peak production between March and August, it is 7,20,000 bottles a day, roughly 2,00,000 liters of Coca-Cola. Or about 2 million liters of water a day, 360 million liters a year!

Workers' Rights: Coca-Cola's Violations of the Law

The heavily-mechanized production process within the Mehdiganj plant involves the following steps: the bottles are washed; lifted on a conveyer chain; the empty bottles checked by a worker and any dirty or chipped bottles taken off the belt; the "okay" bottles are filled with Coke; the bottle cap is jammed on; the batch number, date and time are imprinted and the bottles checked again; another machine then puts the filled bottles in crates; 40 such crates are physically put on a platform by workers; finally the platform itself is taken away by a machine and another empty platform takes its place.

Fifty-four workers are there at every step in this relentless process in each 8-hour shift, making about 170 of these, plus dozens others who do the loading work. In villages such as Mehdiganj, where traditional occupations such as making handloom silk sarees are wilting in the face of more advanced technologies, a large company could theoretically be a godsend. But as can be sensed from the above, it's a heavily mechanized plant and employment benefits are slight. And those who do get work do so for a pittance, and with few benefits, if any.

Many of them have worked at the Mehdiganj plant for years, but are denied the status of permanent workers and any of the benefits that go with it. Coca-Cola used to adopt the practice of laying off workers after 120 days, so no worker could claim the stipulated minimum days of continuous work be made permanent.

A union was formed in 2000, when workers realized that Coca-Cola was paying the labor contractor Rs 110 (about US $ 2.40) a day for their work and they were getting only Rs 72 (about US $ 1.6) a day. In 2001, a strike call was given regarding the non-payment of annual bonus, a violation of the Payment of Bonus Act. The bonus was promised to the workers by the Coke management a day before the threatened strike. Over time, a number of other gains were made: higher wages (to Rs 96 (US $ 2) for an 8-hour day); double wages for working on Sunday, which happened on a regular basis in peak-production months; and medical treatment.

The work described above takes place at a frenetic pace 7 days a week for six months of the year, between March and August. Work is much more intermittent for the rest of the year, and workers have no idea how much they will take home. So in 2002, a sit-in was organized in front of the plant that carried on for eight days. They demanded that contract workers be made permanent and that workers be paid half their wages during the winter months. Most of the contract workers went on a strike to press for this demand.

In response, the company promptly dismissed Bhagwan Das Yadav, other key organizers, and many Yadav workers from Bhikaripur, the neighboring village across G.T. Road. The company then employed a number of Patel men from Mehdiganj, having dismissed Yadavs. When this was opposed, the company brought in workers from elsewhere. One can only marvel at the capacity of the most advanced capital to use the oldest divides of a caste-ridden social structure for its ends.

The only response of authority was for the Court of Civil Judge, Varanasi, to issue a "permanent prohibitory injunction" against Bhagwan Das Yadav and ten others, preventing them from "shouting slogans or making inflammatory speeches … within 300 meters of the plant". (In December 2003, in a legal sleight-of-hand, the names of Nandlal Master, Aflatoon and Dr Swati of the SJP, and Sandeep Pandey of NAPM were added on to this very order's prohibitory list).

After these developments, the company rolled back the gains workers had made earlier. For the last two years, Coca-Cola's workers have been receiving no Provident Fund, no ESI (medical insurance), and no longer any double overtime payment for Sundays. All of which is a violation many times over of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, and other Acts that are part of Indian labor law. Under the Contract Labor (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited is the principal employer of these workers, and as such is responsible for ensuring that all labor law requirements are met. It cannot, as companies usually do, shrug off its responsibilities by saying that the labor contractor who hired them is responsible.

And so, at the moment, Coca-Cola's workers are still unsure of how much they'd earn in the lean months. One worker this reporter interviewed in the last week of September, who has been working at the plant for the last three years, said he had worked for only four days in the month of September.

Falling water levels is the issue facing not just Mehdiganj, but also Nagepur, Bhikaripur, Saidapar, Jamuni, Kallipur, Benipur and others, about twenty villages in all. Mehdiganj village alone has about 10,000 people, so we are talking about thousands of people affected.

The Growing Movement Against Coca-Cola

There have been three significant shifts in the growing movement against Coca-Cola in Mehdiganj. All three have occurred in the last year-and-a-half or so.

One, the base of the movement has gotten wider. From being a handful of individuals and the GBSS in Mehdiganj petitioning against the company, the opposition in the area has spread not only within Mehdiganj, but also to a number of villages around. Mehdiganj, however, remains fulcrum of the movement. Also, a greater number of organizations and NGOs have begun to play a central role in mobilizing people and in agitational programs. Besides local individuals, those in the forefront of the agitation now include Lok Samiti, Lok Mahila Samiti, GBSS, Samajwadi Jan Parishad (SJP), and Saajha Sanskritik Manch, which is a collective of SJP, Manav Adhikar Jan Nigram Samiti and other organizations in Varanasi. Visible support is also coming from the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), an umbrella collective that brings together numerous organizations and struggles all over the country.

The movement here in Mehdiganj is also linking up with anti-Coke movements elsewhere in India and even internationally. A four-day march was held from Jaipur on 25-28 September, culminating in the Coca-Cola plant in Kaladera, about 40 km from Jaipur. Hundreds of people from different parts of the country courted arrest when police stopped them short of the Kaladera plant. Many of the groups involved, including activists from Mehdiganj, had met in Delhi in mid-September to intensify the agitation against Coca-Cola. In January 2004, at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, various representatives from Mehdiganj met with trade unionists from Colombia who are also struggling against Coca-Cola.

Yet, opposition to the plant is not universal in Mehdiganj village and in the area. Support among the plant's workers is mixed. A security guard at the Coke plant asked, "What about the wells and bores that the villagers are digging? Is anyone asking them to be closed down? Don't they understand that by demanding the plant be closed they are affecting our livelihoods?"

The movement has not spread its base among sections of the scheduled castes. Also, local elite castes and many members of the panchayat, it was often alleged, toe the Coca-Cola line. "The panchayat can, by mobilizing people, close the plant if it wants to. But in the 15-member panchayat, only a couple are against it," says Badri Prasad, himself a panchayat member for the last four years.

Moreover, Coca-Cola's tactics of providing gifts and benefits to villagers - distributing utensils, organizing medical camps, gifting the odd sewing machine, and building a tiny room in a local school - all of which is aimed at generating support for Coke's presence and at undermining the opposition, seems to have had partial success.

The second change is that from pollution, the plant's wastewater and sludge and non-payment of land revenue, the focus of the movement over the last few months has shifted to depleting groundwater being exacerbated by Coca-Cola's water extractions. At a sit-in in front of the state assembly in Lucknow in June 2004, these organizations demanded that:
  • the license of the Mehdiganj plant be cancelled;
  • the enormous water extractions by the plant be halted forthwith;
  • affected farmers be paid compensation for the pollution caused by the Company;
  • the gram sabha land illegally occupied by the company be released;
  • proceedings be launched against the Pepsi Cola Company in Jaunpur, Coca-Cola plants in Mehdiganj and Ballia, and all other bottling plants in the state of Uttar Pradesh."

The third shift has been since the sit-in front of the plant in May 2003, when the mobilization against the Coca-Cola plant has taken on a much more varied and intense character. There was a major confrontation at another sit-in in front of the Coca-Cola plant on 10 September 2003. About 500 people from local villages, from organizations in the area, in Varanasi and elsewhere were baton-charged by the police. Seventy-six people were taken into police custody, and many injured, including one woman with a bad injury to the head. In response, the District Magistrate (DM), Varanasi, ordered an enquiry by the ADM (Administration) on 23 September, but it has not seen the light of day in over a year. The DM was not available for comment.

On 7 October, an effigy of Coca-Cola was burnt in front of the plant. And from 28 October to 4 November, a march was organized from the Coke plant in Mehdiganj to a Pepsi plant in Jaunpur 150 km away. In mid-December 2003, ten activists from Lok Samiti, SJP, Mahila Swarojgar Samiti, and NAPM went on a five-day hunger strike in front of the plant. They were supported by fifty people sitting with them each day, hence about 300 in all went on hunger strikes of varied duration.

Cycle marches have been conducted to the DM's office in Varanasi. And on 9-10 June 2004, many hundred people held a sit-in in front of the state assembly in Lucknow, referred to earlier. But, as one woman said, "nothing was having an effect on the company". And also, it seems, on the authorities. On the contrary, a restraining order has been issued against five key activists from assembling within 300 meters of the plant's gates.

"We have approached the District Magistrate, the ADM, the Regional Pollution Control Board, the legislature. No one is listening to us. From 24 November onwards, we will halt the company's activities. Anywhere between two to three thousand people will assemble in front of the plant and shut its gates," says Nandlal Master of Lok Samiti and UP state office-bearer of NAPM.

In Conclusion

As struggles in Plachimada (Kerala), Kaladera (Rajasthan) and elsewhere have shown, the issue of declining water levels is affecting farmers and people's livelihoods in several places in India. And as elsewhere, Coca-Cola and other soft drink manufacturers are contributing to an unfolding crisis of water resources. Even P.R. Dasmunshi, the Union Minister for Water Resources has been forced to admit that excessive water use by soft drink manufacturers was posing a threat to the country's groundwater resources (Business Standard, 2 September 2004).

In Mehdiganj, if it is not a crisis as yet, it certainly will be. What stands out is the increased regularity with which large companies are privatizing common resources - in the case of Mehdiganj, water and a portion of its commons land - in which process they are actively encouraged by the state. If anything, resistance is derided and put down forcibly by the use of police force.

One aspect of democracy in its fullest sense is that people ought to have control over their own resources. To the degree that these companies undermine that, they are also undermining Indian democracy. Admittedly, control over and access to water resources in agrarian India is always mediated by one's class and caste position. But large companies take this control one step further away, and the effects of that, to varying degrees, are felt by all. In Mehdiganj, its harmful effects will get deeper and wider in the near future. But so, one gets the feeling, will the people's movement against large companies usurping their resources.

Nagraj Adve is a New Delhi based journalist

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