Coca-Cola: Poisoning Water, Land and People

by Amit Srivastava
India Resource Center
March 14, 2006

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 and Australia.

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 irresponsible.
Mehdiganj March Against Coca-Cola
March Against Coca-Cola in Mehdiganj Credit: Amit Srivastava

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.

Poisoning People

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 government study.

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 relations exercise.

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