Coke with Yet Another New Twist: Toxic Cola
The Indian parliament has banned the sale of Coke and Pepsi products in its cafeteria. Indian parliamentarians should take the logical next step, and ban the sale of Coke and Pepsi products in the entire country.
The ban came as the result of tests, including those by the Indian government, which found high concentrations of pesticides and insecticides, including lindane, DDT, malathion and chlorpyrifos, in the colas, making them unfit for consumption. Some samples tested showed the presence of these toxins to be more than 30 times the standard allowed by the European Union. Tests of samples taken from the US of the same drinks were found to be safe.
Double standards? You bet. An isolated incident? Not quite. Large multinationals are notorious for serving up products that have been banned in the West to new and emerging markets in developing countries. The tobacco industry, faced with dwindling sales after successful anti-tobacco initiatives in the US, is investing heavily in addicting developing countries. Dow Chemical (owner of the Union Carbide company of the Bhopal gas disaster fame) aggressively markets the pesticide Dursban in India, in spite of the US Environmental Protection Agency announcing plans to phase out Dursban in the US because it is harmful to humans.
Coca-Cola India has hired a public relations firm, Perfect Relations, to rebuild its tarnished image in India. But the story of Coca-Cola in India goes much deeper than the toxic colas being served to the public, and no measure of public relations alone can solve this problem.
Communities in and around Coca-Cola's bottling operations are facing severe shortages of water as a result of the cola major sucking huge amounts of water from the common groundwater source. To add insult to injury, the scarce water that remains has been polluted by Coca-Cola as a result of its operations. In a gesture of goodwill, Coca-Cola now proudly trucks in water tankers for the community. And the main raw material for Coca-Cola's product -- water -- is practically free for the cola major.
Water problems created by Coca-Cola are not an isolated incident. At least five communities in India located next to Coca-Cola facilities are facing similar problems, and the number of families affected, mostly the rural poor, runs into the thousands.
And as if there wasn't enough fizz in the water already, so to speak, Coca-Cola, in another goodwill gesture, was giving away the toxic sludge from its plant in Kerala to farmers for free -- as fertilizer! Tests on samples of the toxic sludge commissioned by BBC, not surprisingly, found high levels of lead and cadmium.
Coca-Cola has chosen to "fix" the problem of water shortage and groundwater pollution by assigning it to its public relations department. Any letter or email to Coke on this issue will be responded to by a form letter, accusing the issue to be the work of a "handful of extremists". A visit to the communities, as well as numerous studies including those by government agencies, will confirm that nothing could be further from the truth. Thousands of people continue to protest Coke facilities all across India.
Unable to control the increasing number of communities speaking out against Coca-Cola, we are now witnessing the increasing use of force in dealing with local complaints against the cola multinational. On September 11, 2003, armed security forces violently attacked a peaceful demonstration of over a thousand community members in Mehdiganj, Uttar Pradesh, resulting in grave injuries to some. On August 30, 2003, this time in Kerala, 13 activists were arrested during a peaceful demonstration and a leader of the movement was severely beaten by the police.
Coca-Cola, along with the government, may believe that the use of force will make the problem go away. It was this kind of tactics which has led to a lawsuit in the US against the Colombian subsidiary of Coca-Cola for using para-military forces to kill union leaders in Coca-Cola plants in Colombia.
Such blatant abuses by a large multinational like Coca-Cola highlight the problems of economic globalization. Communities no longer have any control over their natural resources or even development policies that directly affect their lives. Governments such as India prefer to turn a blind eye to serious abuses in the fears that it will hinder further foreign investment- a criteria often used by the US to "measure" a country's commitment to the war on terrorism. And they may have a point. The US government has intervened strongly on behalf of Enron and Coca-Cola in India in the past. And institutions such as the World Trade Organization, essentially a corporate bill of rights, will make it a crime to stop Coca-Cola from perpetuating such abuses.
For the communities in India reeling from Coca-Cola's practices, Atlanta based Coca-Cola is the oppressor. Very ironic, given that Atlanta is the center of the civil rights movement in the US. Contrary to Coca-Cola's slogan about it being the real thing, it's more like the unreal thing.
Amit Srivastava coordinates the India Resource Center, www.indiaresource.org, a project of Global Resistance, a San Francisco-based organization that works closely with social movements in India and globally.
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