Cola Behind Empty Pots? Coke Thirsts for a Fight - No Water, No Problem?
Chandrima S. Bhattacharya
The Telegraph (Calcutta)
July 17, 2005

Mumbai: Even as trouble brews over the supply of water to the Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada in Kerala, leading to allegations that it is creating severe water shortage in the area, the multinational has slapped a notice on an Indian photographer for using the Coke logo in the background of a photograph depicting water scarcity.

The company has asked Sharad Haksar, a Chennai-based photographer, well-known in advertising circles, to remove the giant billboard in Chennai on which the photograph appears and make an unconditional apology or face a legal suit and a damages claim of over Rs 20 lakh ($46,000).

The billboard, at Nungambakkam High Road next to the Taj Coromandel Hotel, shows a dry hand pump with four pots lined up next to it by the roadside. The backdrop to this is a wall, with “Drink Coca Cola” in white on a red background.

Speaking from Chennai, Haksar said he has not withdrawn the billboard.

A Coca-Cola spokesperson in Mumbai said the July 11 notice was served because it was an “infringement of our trademark”. But he added that the company respected Haksar’s creative freedom as an artist and was in talks with him.

Haksar, who is associated with Coke as a photographer — he just shot a campaign with Tamil actor Vikram — has refused to apologise or withdraw the picture.

He said he was also “talking to Coke”, but stressed that his photograph did not impinge on Coke’s copyright in any way.

“What is depicted in my picture is a very common sight in Chennai, where the photograph was taken. I did not want to make any point against a particular company. It could have been Pepsi or Fanta and still my photograph would hold. I wanted to show the irony of the situation — when there is such acute water shortage, aerated drinks are freely available.”

He said to ensure no one takes offence, he had clearly put a disclaimer on the hoarding.

Coke’s notice has been sent by the law firm Daniel & Gladys, who represent Coca-Cola’s Indian subsidiary, citing “incalculable” damage to the goodwill and reputation of the brand Coca-Cola. It states that the disclaimer is “depicted in an insignificant place of the hoarding which is not even legible/visible”.

It adds: “My clients suspect a foul play that your action is malicious and also a deliberate attempt to bring disrepute to my client’s global reputation built up by spending millions and millions of rupees and by its quality of product and service.”

Haksar said Coca-Cola authorities had seen the photograph in his office before it was blown up on the 20 feet x 30 feet billboard. “If there was anything objectionable in it, they would have reacted then,” he said.

He has been putting up a photograph with a social message on the billboard for three years. The photographer said possibly the controversy in Plachimada could have prompted Coke’s legal notice.

“There is, though, no mention at all of Plachimada in the five-page notice they have served me,” he added.

There could be a solution soon, however. “I work with them and I don’t want this to drag on,” said Haksar. “And I put up a picture for about a month. I put this one up at the end of June. So it’s almost time for it to go,” he said.

But the incident has already become a cause celebre. Though the message of Haksar’s picture may have been different — he insists that it is a piece of art and a general comment on water scarcity in the country — the picture has been appropriated by the anti-MNC brigade.

Environment groups and other NGOs like the international organisation, India Resource Center, have taken it up.

The campaign continues to receive tremendous public support internationally, claimed the India Resource Center website. “We appreciate Mr Haksar’s efforts and we condemn Coca-Cola’s attempts to silence a public discourse on the issues,” said Amit Srivastava of the outfit.

There have been several protests against Coke recently. While in Plachimada, Coca-Cola has been unable to open its bottling facility for the last 16 months because the local community will not allow it, people in Gangaikondan, near Chennai, have demonstrated against an upcoming Coca-Cola plant.

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