Coca-Cola: Poisoning Water, Land and People
In the last two weeks, the Coca-Cola company has come under scrutiny
once again for selling harmful products - this time, with high levels
of benzene, a cancer causing chemical. The company's products are
being investigated all across the world, including the US, UK, China
For the public in India, the news that Coca-Cola is once again associated
with dangerous practices hardly comes as a surprise. In India, Coca-Cola
has earned the unenviable reputation of "toxic-cola" as a result of
its practices in India.
Coca-Cola's record of pollution in India is sordid, made even worse
because the company refuses to acknowledge the continued poisoning
of the people, the water and the land.
Polluting Water and Land
In one of the most significant community-led victories over a large
multinational corporation in recent times, villagers from Plachimada,
in the southern state of Kerala, have shut down Coca-Cola's bottling
plant, since March 2004.
The community has maintained that Coca-Cola is creating severe water
shortages for the community by affecting both the quantity and quality
of water. Coca-Cola, in spite of all its rhetoric about being a sustainable
user of water, had located the plant in an area that has experienced
drought for years. The Coca-Cola company says that it conducted water
assessment studies prior to locating the plant, yet they will not
release those reports. The siting of a bottling plant that extracts
millions of liters of water in a drought prone area is completely
Equally alarming is the pollution of the scarce remaining groundwater
and land by the Coca-Cola company. Coca-Cola has indiscriminately
discharged its waste into the surrounding fields, and the groundwater
has been rendered unfit for human consumption and the land has been
poisoned. For a community that derives its livelihood primarily from
agriculture, water scarcity and pollution have dramatic impacts.
In spite of a number of studies confirming the pollution of the water
wells and the land, the Coca-Cola company has refused to acknowledge
that it is centrally the problem, insisting that the campaign against
the company is the work of a "handful of extremists". The company's
denials come even after the primary state agency responsible for controlling
pollution, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, issued a "stop
order" notice to the company, citing it for extremely high levels
of cadmium around the plant.
Distributing Toxic Waste as Fertilizer
Some of Coca-Cola's practices in India have been downright absurd.
In a "goodwill gesture", Coca-Cola was distributing the solid waste
from its bottling plants to farmers in the area as fertilizer. The
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had the waste tested and found
extremely high levels of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium in
the waste, effectively making the solid waste toxic. When confronted
by the BBC reporter on their practice of distributing toxic waste
as fertilizer, Coca-Cola's Vice-President said, "It's good for the
farmers because most of them are poor." The Coca-Cola company was
ordered to stop the practice by the government authorities immediately.
One of the most remarkable cases of double standards in recent times
has to be Coca-Cola's selling of sub-standard drinks in India.
In 2003, a very well respected environmental group and winner of 2005
Stockholm Water Prize, the Centre for Science and Environment, found
that Coca-Cola (and Pepsico) products in India contained extremely
high levels of pesticides-DDT, malathion, lindane and chlorpyrifos.
In some samples, the presence of these insecticides exceeded the limits
set by the European Economic Community by 137 times!
The Indian government set up one of the highest ranking bodies possible
to be set up in India, the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), to
look into the pesticides found by the original study. In February
2004, the JPC confirmed that Coca-Cola products contained extremely
high levels of pesticides. The Parliament of India banned the sale
of Coca-Cola and Pepsico products in the parliament cafeteria, and
the ban remains in effect to this day.
In blatant disregard for lives in India, the Coca-Cola company continues
to sell products in India with high levels of pesticides even today.
Coca-Cola maintains that its products in India are completely safe,
and that it has one global standard for all its products.
The reality, however, is very different. On at least 10 occasions
since January 2005, the US Food and Drug Administration has rejected
the shipment of Coca-Cola products made in India coming into the US,
on the grounds that they do not conform to US laws and that they are
unsafe for the US public.
So much for the one global standard.
The India Resource Center has publicly asked the Coca-Cola company
to share the studies they must have conducted to convince themselves
that the average Indian can consume poisons at a level 30 times higher
than the average European and American.
We have yet to hear back from the company.
A Pattern of Arrogance
When questioned about the high levels of pesticides in their products
which were confirmed by the government, Coca-Cola company officials
have stated publicly that they do not agree with the results of the
When asked about the distribution of toxic waste to farmers around
their bottling plants, the Coca-Cola company has stated that "It's
good for the farmers because most of them are poor."
When asked about the pollution of the water and land caused by the
company that has been documented by various government and independent
agencies, Coca-Cola officials deny any pollution.
When asked about the water shortages being experienced by communities,
Coca-Cola denies any role in the drop in groundwater levels, blaming
failed monsoons instead. In some areas of India, the Coca-Cola company
has claimed that their operations have increased the groundwater levels
in the area!
To respond to the growing opposition to its operations in India, Coca-Cola
has recently announced ambitious rainwater harvesting programs, and
company officials make preposterous claims that somehow, their water
needs will be met by such initiatives. But if there is not enough
rain in the first place, how can rainfall harvesting be successful?
Public Relations Futile
The Coca-Cola company has invested heavily in public relations in
India to try to divert attentions from the real issues. And it is
clearly not working. Communities across India continue to grow in
strength and size as Coca-Cola's bottling operations take a toll on
tens of thousands of Indians.
The campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable has taken a toll on the
company already. The campaign "has cost it millions of dollars in
lost sales and legal fees in India, and growing damage to its reputation
elsewhere," according to the Wall Street Journal. Close to 20 colleges
and universities in the US and UK have rejected contracts with the
Coca-Cola company until they clean up their act.
From March 16-22, 2006, Mexico will host the fourth World Water Forum,
an important international meeting aimed at ameliorating the water
crisis in the world.
What then, we ask, is the Coca-Cola company doing as one of the leading
sponsors of the World Water Forum? As a champion of unsustainable
use of water globally, Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the forum puts the
very credibility of the World Water Forum at stake.
Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the World Water Forum in Mexico is another
attempt by the company to divert attention away from the crisis it
has created in India.
The World Water Forum should send a strong message to the Coca-Cola
company. Acknowledging its crimes in India is a necessary first step
towards finding solutions to the crisis in India.
Until then, the growing community campaigns in India and their supporters
internationally will continue to increase the pressure on the company.
For more information, visit www.IndiaResource.org
Amit Srivastava is the coordinator of India Resource Center, an
international campaigning organization working to challenge abuses
by multinational corporations. India Resource Center will be at the
World Water Forum in Mexico to challenge the Coca-Cola company's public
March Against Coca-Cola in Mehdiganj Credit: Amit Srivastava
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