Rising Struggles, Falling Water
Anti-Coca-Cola Agitation Picks up in Kaladera, Rajasthan
It's a classic David versus Goliath story. Villagers facing diminishing
livelihoods agitating against one of the largest soft-drink and bottled
water companies in the world: Coca-Cola. Fortunately there are many
Over the last year-and-a-half, an agitation has been building up against
a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Kaladera and adjoining villages near
Jaipur, Rajasthan. With the intense anti-Coca-Cola sentiment in this
area, about thirty villages and a number of organizations have mobilized
under the banner of Jan Sangharsh Samiti (People's Committee
for Struggle). Farmers from these villages hold Coca-Cola primarily
responsible for declining ground water levels in the region and the
resultant harm to local agriculture.
Kaladera, in Govindgarh block, is a large village about forty kilometers
from Jaipur city. An overwhelming majority of its 12-13,000 inhabitants
engage in agriculture. But it is also an education hub in the region,
with schools and excellent colleges, thanks partly to the work of
social reform organizations in the past. Many of its students come
here from affected villages around.
Falling Water Tables, Sinking Hearts
This was earlier a fairly fertile region. "Even when there was famine
in other parts of Rajasthan, the area around Kaladera was doing alright.
But ground water has fallen sharply in the last few years," said a
professor in a local college. This area has been a declared a 'dark
zone', which means that digging new wells and installing pumps is
illegal, and no loans are sanctioned towards this.
Figures as to how far down the water table has gone vary, but there
is not the slightest doubt that it has fallen precipitously. Peering
into numerous wells in the area, whose depth varied between forty
and eighty feet revealed that all of them were bone-dry, their only
use now being to provide shelter to some homeless pigeons. "Just seven
or eight years ago, these wells used to have water at about 10-15
feet," said one farmer pointing at his now completely dry well. All
households this reporter visited had dug bore wells; some had submersibles,
in which the motor itself is submerged in the water at depths of 200
feet or more. The deputy-Sarpanch (deputy village head) of
the local panchayat (village council) said, "That old well
outside my house used to be full barely 8-9 years ago. I had to go
deeper. Then I gave up on that well, and had to dig a much deeper
bore. Cultivators here have to go down 125 feet to get water. In five
years, the situation will be extremely grim. They will finish the
water and go away."
The 'they' referred to is the Coca-Cola plant just a couple of kilometers
away, at 39-40, RIICO Industrial Area. Established in 1999, the bottling
plant owned by Coca-Cola manufactures Coke, Fanta, other soft drink
brands, and its bottled water Kinley. Its extractions have been increasing
with each passing year. According to the recent Report on
A Press Clipping on the Withdrawal of Ground Water by Coca-Cola Factory
at Kaladera, by scientists from the Central Ground Water Board,
Western Region, and the Rajasthan Pollution Control Board, among others,
the Coca-Cola plant extracted 1,37,694 cubic meters of water in 2002-03,
and 1,74,301 cubic meters in just nine months to December 2003. A
news report in The Hindu published earlier had similar figures.
Quoting a hydrologist of the Central Ground Water Board, Western Region,
it said that shallow aquifers in the Kaladera region had already dried
up and deeper aquifers were now threatened by the Coca-Cola plant's
activities (The Hindu, 16 June 2004). Coca-Cola gets the water
free except for a tiny cess it pays the government, little over Rs
5,000 (USD 110) a year in the three years 2000-02, and Rs 24,246 (USD
525) in 2003 (Report, 2004). In the vicinity of the Coca Cola
plant is a beer-manufacturing plant, which agitators also want closed
down, but their focus is on the huge Coca-Cola plant.
The Report put the groundwater at 72 feet in early July 2004,
which is when these scientists visited Kaladera, whereas all local
residents this reporter spoke to put the level at between 90-125 feet.
"Those officials probably measured levels during the monsoon months
when groundwater levels go up," a local teacher said dryly. "It gets
much worse in the non-monsoon period." Sawarmal, a jeep driver from
Kaladera who also owns a bit of land, made a grim prediction: "We
will have drinking water for 10 more years at the most. After that,
our plight will be like Jodhpur's, where water comes in tankers."
A Coca-Cola representative, Sunil Sharma, admitted to this reporter
that the plant used about 0.15 mcm (million cubic meters) of water
last year, but claimed that Coca-Cola has also been regenerating,
through 19 shafts in Kaladera, even more ground water than it extracts.
He also argued that the fall had been more drastic elsewhere.
Some people who have visited the plant were told that it produces
600 bottles a minute. Activists say that 24 trucks, each laden with
1,100 crates, transport its products out of the plant each day. The
Coca-Cola official refused to reveal the plant's output, hence these
figures provided by the movement are difficult to confirm. But these
are plausible figures for a heavily mechanized plant of this size.
The plant's employment varies between 60-70 to 250 workers depending
on the season, with more production in the summer months.
Undoubtedly, other factors have contributed to the groundwater decline
in the area. And the decline preceded the setting up of the Coca-Cola
plant. These are areas that industrialized significantly for the first
time within the last ten years. According to a senior official with
the Ministry of Industries, Rajasthan, there are 36 large and medium
industrial units in rural areas of Jaipur district. "Less rainfall,
more wells being dug and cultivation moving away from millet to cash
crops that require more water all contributed to the decline," said
Rameshwar Kudi, retired Assistant Director, Department of Agriculture,
who stays in Anop Pura, one of the affected villages nearby, and convener
of the Regional Sangharsh Samiti (Regional Struggle Committee).
And the setting up of a brewery, Rajasthan Liquors (P) Limited, just
next to the Coca-Cola plant has also contributed to depleting ground
"But," Kudi added, "The situation has worsened since the Coca-Cola
plant was set up in 1999. Their motors are vastly more powerful, and
operate 24 hours a day. Since then, people have had to dig deeper
every year." Numerous locals this reporter interview concurred, with
the constant refrain: "Ever since the Coca Cola plant came up.........."
Impacting Agriculture and People's Lives
The largest landowners in the region are Jats, Yadavs, Hiranya Brahmins
and Meenas. The largest holdings are only about 65 bighas, or 40 acres
(1 acre=1.6 bighas). Most large owners would be in the 25-50 bigha
range. Typically, some among these dominant social groups also have
middle-level holdings. Other middle-level landowners include the Kumhars,
Nai, Khati, and Mahajans. The Dalits (Scheduled Castes like Chamars,
Raigar, Balai) and others either have extremely small landholdings
or are landless. Some among them are engaged in skinning animal carcasses,
tanning, and other leather work. However, even landholdings of 5-10
bighas tend to be productive if supplied with water. This traditionally
fertile region has been blessed with more than one crop a year. Bajra
(millets), groundnut, wheat, mustard, fenugreek, gram and chowlai
(amaranth) grow here in abundance.
But the water for these crops comes from the rainwater-groundwater
combine. The region has no other source of water. "There are no canals,
no dams, the river (Bagho nearby) has dried out, and there are only
tube wells," says Rameshwar Kudi. Hence when ground water declines
in such an area, it is nothing less than a crisis, mitigated only
somewhat by a decent monsoon this year.
The declining water table has had multiple effects on agriculture:
rising input costs, falling productivity and lesser land being tilled.
Mukul Yogi, the convener of the Kaladera Sangharsh Samiti explains
this in detail. Earlier, cultivators here used 3 horsepower (HP) motors.
Now, with the water declining, they have had to upgrade to 5, 7.5
and even 10 HP. Which means not just additional capital costs, but
huge electricity bills, which have more than doubled. Secondly, earlier,
with water being closer to the surface, there was greater moistness,
which meant better quality of produce. And thirdly, sprinklers now
use fewer nozzles which means that the land that can get watered in
a given time has halved. This has meant that increasingly, some of
the land lies fallow for want of water.
The effects of declining land use on local employment can only be
imagined, and will probably worsen in coming years. But not speculative
at all is its impact on agricultural profitability, which has been
differentially adverse depending on the crop. "Over the last 4-5 years,
the output of wheat has fallen by ten quintals a hectare, that of
mustard by 2-5 quintals a hectare," said Rameshwar Kudi. Another cultivator
from a village nearby said, "Our large extended family of about 20
members has 55 bighas of land. Beyond what we consumed, we used to
earn about Rs 45,000 (USD 980) a year till recently. Nowadays, we
can irrigate only about 30 bighas, the rest lies unused. We barely
grow any surplus to sell."
It has also meant reduced water for daily consumption. According to
Rohtas, a landless laborer who earns about Rs 50-60 (USD 1.5) a day,
many hand pumps have gone dry, and those that haven't have less pressure.
"Earlier, we could fill five hundis (pots) in an hour. Now, not even
two hundis get filled in that time, and it takes a lot more physical
The Growing Anti-Coke Movement
Nearly fifty villages which fall in Chomu and Amer tehsils have been
affected, including Kaladera, Anop Pura, Kanarpura, Bai Ka Bans, Sabalpura
On February 2, 2003, over two hundred residents of 22 villages met
in Kaladera and passed a resolution that the Coca-Cola plant be closed
down. In the weeks that followed, Sangharsh Samitis (Struggle
Committees) began to be formed in some of the affected villages, and
each elected a convener for the village Samiti. However, there was
an unexplained lull for some months, before the movement revived again
in May 2004. A sit-in was planned for 5 June, towards which street
theatre groups went from village to village with street plays on the
issue every day between 21 and 25 May. By this time, a number of organizations
in Rajasthan were actively involved. These included the Rajasthan
Samagra Seva Sangh, Azaadi Bachao Andolan, Rashtriya Yuva Sanghatan,
Rajasthan Kisan Union, and the Jaipur Gau Samvardhan Samiti,
who along with the village Sangharsh Samitis have come under
the non-party banner, Jan Sangharsh Samiti, Rajasthan. This
agitation is supported by PUCL Rajasthan, Arya Samaj, MKSS, and CPI-ML
(Liberation), Rajasthan. Even the right-wing Shiv Sena, which
has a presence in Kaladera, has participated in programs.
At the 5 June sit-in, over two thousand people held a demonstration
in Kaladera against the Coca-Cola plant, shouting the slogan "Coca-Cola
Bhagao, Pani Bachao" (Get rid of Coca-Cola, Save Water). On that
day, at least eight of the 24 members of the Kaladera panchayat resigned
in protest. Though the panchayat had issued the no-objection certificate
(NOC) for the plant required under law, activists allege that it was
issued fraudulently, on the letterhead of the Sarpanch (village
head) of the panchayat without others knowing. Importantly, they also
said that the Kaladera Gram Sabha (village general body) passed
a resolution on January 2, 2003 for the closure of the plant, but
that they had been refused a copy of that resolution. And on 29 June
this year, the Amer Panchayat Samiti which represents 42 panchayats
and includes thirty of the affected villages, passed a resolution
that the Coca-Cola "factory be shut down with immediate effect".
Sangharsh Samitis have been formed so far in 32 of the fifty
or so villages affected. The social base of the movement in the area
is wide, predominantly among the middle and large landowners. A section
of the large landowners have other sources of income, and support
among them is mixed. Dalits have not been very visible in the movement
as yet. Not only because some among them are not directly engaged
in agriculture, but also because in the complex caste equations of
agrarian Rajasthan, it is not easy for upper, middle castes and Dalits
to come together. But these are early days yet in what is an emerging
movement, gaining strength in the area and beyond.
In Jaipur on 3 August, hundreds of students and activists marched
from Statue Circle to the Rajasthan legislature, demanding the closure
of the Coca-Cola plant in Kaladera and of 23 new breweries in the
state (Dainik Bhaskar, 4 August 2004). A petition from the
Jan Sangharsh Samiti to the Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje
said it "expected the government to disallow the operations of cold
drink plants and breweries" in the state. A four-day march has been
planned starting from Jaipur on 25 September to Kaladera, stopping
each day in villages en route, and culminating in a large demonstration
in Kaladera on 28 September. And a two-day meeting was held in Delhi
on 18-19 September attended by activists engaged in anti-Coca-Cola
struggles in Plachimada (Kerala), Mehdiganj and Ballia
(UP), Kaladera (Rajasthan), Kolkata (West Bengal), Jharkhand,
Bihar, and elsewhere in India. The meeting was held to share experiences,
intensify struggles in their respective areas, and plan joint activity
in the next six months. One gets the feeling there will never be a
lull in the agitation in Kaladera again.
State and Coca-Cola's Response
"The government," says the District Magistrate Sudansh Pant, "spends
millions in Jaipur district on watershed development, on anicuts and
small dams." But the State's only response to the movement's specific
demands has been to send in the police whenever any agitation takes
place, and ban any congregation near the plant, as happened on 5 June
this year. It promptly imposes Section 144 IPC, a preventive
detention provision defended by the district magistrate. "What if
violence takes place? Rajasthan is a very good state from the point
of view of law-and-order, we attract investment for that reason."
Coca-Cola's efforts have been more subtle, and two-fold. Rameshwar
Kudi says, "The company has bought over some people. The local Member
of the Legislative Assembly, who campaigned in the recent elections
saying Coca-Cola should go, changed his tune as soon as he won." These
allegations are near-impossible to verify, but many people repeated
that some local notables and representatives have been bought over.
The other move by Coca-Cola is to engage in some developmental work
in the area. It has constructed a half-kilometer stretch of road in
the village, and conducts free medical camps and distribution of medicines.
Providing tri-cycles to physically handicapped, providing scholarships
to some meritorious students in 13 schools in the area, sewing machines
to fifty widows, and efforts at recharging groundwater are among other
works listed in a company hand-out. Welcome as these might be to its
beneficiaries, these moves are aimed essentially at creating goodwill
for Coca-Cola and at undermining the movement. They're getting the
water for free, but they are buying people's minds.
Some Larger Questions
To conclude, there is no doubt that the Coca-Cola plant's extractions
in Kaladera have contributed acutely to an already unfolding water
crisis. The anti-Coca-Cola struggle there raises questions about the
sometimes thoughtless investment allowed under the ideological mantra
of 'industrialization'. Why does one of India's driest states need
Coca-Cola and Pepsi plants and breweries, as in Kaladera and Ajmer?
This is a state in which, as elsewhere, struggles over water are getting
more intense, says Sawai Singh, convener of the Rajasthan Jan Sangharsh
Samiti which is in the forefront of the struggle. Just a few days
ago, he says, residents of Beawer, Ajmer, blocked a national
highway over the lack of access to water, and were baton-charged by
the police. This is a state in which, according to the National Commission
on Population's District-wise Social Economic Demographic Indicators
(2001), of the top 250 districts in India whose households have access
to safe drinking water, not a single district is in Rajasthan. Jaipur
district is rated 306th out of 569 districts in the country. Should
Coca-Cola or Pepsi be a priority for such a state?
Further, Coca-Cola's extraction of ground water at Kaladera and several
sites elsewhere in India amounts to nothing less than a privatization
of public water, since access to the final product - whether Kinley,
Coca-Cola, or other soft drink brands - depends fundamentally, as
with all markets, on one's capacity to pay. It also raises questions
about the increasingly skewed nature of development itself, as to
which social groups pay the price and why, so that the urban middle
class and elites can drink bottled water and aerated drinks. Says
Sawai Singh, "Water should be available for drinking and agriculture,
not for industries that have no social use."
Nagraj Adve is an activist and journalist based in New Delhi.
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