Rising Struggles, Falling Water

Anti-Coca-Cola Agitation Picks up in Kaladera, Rajasthan

By Nagraj Adve
India Resource Center
September 24, 2004

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 Davids.

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 water.

"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 effort."

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 and Dhinoi.

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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