Taking the Fizz Out of Coke's Image
James Clasper
The London Line
May 19, 2005

Coca-Cola is the latest US corporate giant to face the wrath of environmentalists. Now campaigners are organising a UK boycott of the fizzy drinks company, claiming that Coke is leaving India thirsty. James Clasper reports

An anti-Coke protestor demonstrates in BangaloreIt made its name teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. But Coca-Cola is facing growing criticism of its corporate policies. The company is soon to become the target of a UK consumer boycott campaigning against its environmental record in India, where the multinational is also the focus of angry protests.

UK boycott organisers hope the campaign will be as effective as a similar action against Nestle. The confectionery and drinks giant has been blackballed by "ethical shoppers" who believe Nestle has pressured new mothers in the developing world to forego breastfeeding for its less nutritious powdered milk alternative. Nestle has always denied the allegations. But no matter - the campaigners' message has reached a wide audience.

In July, US-based independent corporate watchdog the India Resource Center will open an office in London, from which it will organise its anti-Coke protest. It hopes to capitalise on the ire of some big campaigning names against Coke's policies in India. Body Shop founder Anita Roddick has written on the subject several times and has publicised the work of the India Resource Center, which also contributed a chapter to her latest book on global water shortages. And comedian Mark Thomas is backing the boycott.

"Coca-Cola has a huge amount of power, which it abuses in the destruction of local indigenous groups to dominate the world market," Thomas says.

Campaign organiser Amit Srivastava is adamant that Coca-Cola is destroying livelihoods in India. In particular, he says the company is reponsible for using precious water resources in a drought-ridden area, and that it has in the past distributed cadmium-laced soil-amendment substances to local farmers.

"If we show people what Coke is responsible for, they'll never want to drink it again," he insists. He will be in London next week to scout for a base for the campaign. He plans to work with people who have family links with South Asia, trade unions, and universities to create "Coke-free zones".

"It's important that we affect not only Coke's market but also its image," says Srivastava. "We want to get local businesses - 'mom and pop stores' - to stop carrying Coke's products. We're going to focus on areas with high concentrations of those shops."

The group has run a high-profile campaign in the US, which hit a high point at last month's Coca-Cola's shareholder AGM. The board was forced to deal with repeated questions on environmental concerns about its India operations. And last week the 51,000-student Rutgers University cancelled its US$17 million contract with Coca-Cola.

There have also been protests at several of Coca-Cola's 54 Indian plants. This week saw a meeting in New Delhi, at which Gandhi's independence call "Quit India" was echoed against the company.

The most contentious protests have centred on Coca-Cola's bottling plant in the Kerala town of Plachimada, where a state-wide boycott of products started last week. The firm shut the plant last year after local claims that its use of 400,000 litres of water a day was exacerbating the drought in the rain-starved region. However, Coke last week won a Supreme Court ruling confirming a lower court's decision allowing it to re-open the plant.

A year-long independent study had established that the plant could use up to 500,000 litres a day without adversely affecting the water table even in times of rainfall shortage.

The company does, however, accept some culpability in the distribution of soil-amendment substances containing cadmium to local farmers, a practice it has now stopped.

"We have found trace amounts of that [cadmium] in the materials from time to time," confirms Harry Ott, director of Coca-Cola's Global Water Resources Centre in Atlanta. "Where there was a problem, we have gone and taken it back. All of our bio-soils we now take to a hazardous waste site, even though they are not hazardous."

Coke says it has not yet decided whether to re-open the plant, although it has kept its 270 permanent Kerala employees on its payroll. Any decision will be taken by the Indian division of the company "in consultation with the local community," Ott adds.

He says the company is proud of its record in India. It employs 10,000 people and has invested US$1billion in the country in the last decade, including "a significant amount of money" in local communities.

"The money we invest in India stays in India," he insists. "Any time that you operate in a country where there is drought, you have to be sensitive to that country's needs. But we are a hydration company. Why would we build a plant to draw all the water and drive ourselves out of business? We have reduced water use in our plants by 27% since 2000.

"We are not going to draw all the water just because we have a legal right to do it," he adds. "We have learned from all this that we need to work with the community."

But that Kerala community remains angry. The state-wide boycott of Coke products that began last week seems to be gathering pace. Vigils are being held outside government offices and local MP Veerendra Kumar insists: "Coca-Cola is taking water and selling it for a profit."

Arundhati Dhuru of the National Alliance of People's Movements, an umbrella organisation for Indian tribal groups, adds that Kerala is just one front in the fight against Coke. She is involved in a similar campaign in Uttar Pradesh.

"The people of Kerala have a right to decide what's happening in their area to their resources," she says. "The water table has been depleted. People have to go 15, 20 miles to find water. Coca-Cola are absolutely not required. There's no logic. They offer no benefit to the people."

The campaigners may have lost in the courts, but they think they can win where it counts - in some of the multinational's most lucrative markets.

"The court decision was a slight setback, but the campaign has matured and is now escalating," says Srivastava. "Coke's response to all these allegations has been to deny everything. At base, it characterises the impunity with which large US multinationals operate in India."

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. India Resource Center is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.




Home | About | How to Use this Site | Sitemap | Privacy Policy

India Resource Center (IRC) is a project of Global Resistance -- "Building Global Links for Justice"
URL: http://www.IndiaResource.org Email:IndiaResource (AT) igc.org