'David' Srivastava Versus 'Goliath' Coke
Indo-Asian News Service
June 10, 2005

New York, June 10 : The campaign has the classic dimensions of a David versus Goliath battle, David being a pony-tailed 39-year-old college dropout Anil Srivastava and Goliath being the Coca-Cola company.

Srivastava is on a course of action that has taken him on a head-on collision with Coca-Cola's operations in India and eventually everywhere else in the world. Left to him Srivastava would like the beverage giant to "get the hell out, period".

Through his California non-profit Global Resistance, Srivastava is in the thick of his campaign that accuses the beverage giant of a variety of offences, including depleting water levels, poisoning land and marketing drinks "proven" to have pesticides.

"Coke is destroying communities, lives and livelihoods in India," Srivastava told IANS in a phone interview from London where he had gone to launch his campaign against the company in Europe.

Kari Bjorhus, director of health and nutrition communications, Coke, countered Srivastava saying: "From our perspective it is disappointing that he has shown such little interest in facts. We are always interested in hearing what people have to say about us."

For Coke, a company that has invested one billion dollars in India over the past one decade and employs 6,000 people there, Srivastava's Internet campaign could cause considerable discomfort. Coke considers India to be one of its most important markets.

The Wall Street Journal carried a front-page story on Srivastava's campaign in its June 7 edition under the headline, "How a global web of activists gives Coke problems in India", and cast him in the David versus Goliath mode.

Srivastava, the paper said, has been helping "shake up one of the world's biggest corporations".

"That kind of coverage has helped us a great deal. People have responded amazingly to what we are doing," Srivastava said.

At the heart of Srivastava's campaign are Coke's operations in three villages in India, over hundreds of kilometres apart. People in Mehdiganj in Uttar Pradesh near the holy town of Varanasi, Kala Dera in Rajasthan and Plachimada in Kerala have been complaining that because of Coke's bottling plants they have been thrown into an acute water crisis.

"These plants draw a large amount of groundwater and cause the water levels to deplete rapidly. Fresh water is such a scarce commodity in not just these areas but also many other parts of the country. To let Coke consume it the way it likes is unacceptable," Srivastava said.

However, he conceded that Coke may not be "singularly responsible" for the depleting water table. "It is true that some of the regions where they operate are drought prone. But then the question is what is a company that survives on so much water doing in a drought-prone area?" he asked.

According to the company, it needs four litres of water to produce one bottle of Coke.

Bjorhus said there was a court ruling which said long after Coke closed down its Kerala plant, water levels continue to deplete. "We did not affect the local water levels," she said.

The company, she said, had improved its water efficiency standards. She also claimed that the beverage industry as a whole used 0.002 percent of water resource.

But Srivastava said: "The level of cadmium and lead is very high in the solid waste that Coke gave away to local farmers as fertiliser. Those chemicals have a long-term impact. Twenty years down the line this would be like another Bhopal gas disaster."

"We have put Coke on notice. We hold them liable," he said.

Srivastava was born in the US but grew up in India. He said he dropped out of Southern Illinois University "because I realised that I was more drawn towards activism than education."

In 2002 when he was working for Corp Watch, a non-profit corporate watchdog in Oakland, California, he commissioned an article about a protest by local tribal people of Plachimada. The strong response to the article prompted him to get involved with the issue. In 2003, he launched his own NGO.

Today his website www.indiaresource.org has become a platform for global activists to weigh in against Coke.

Srivastava said his plan was to intensify his campaign in the European Union and the US, two of the company's biggest markets.

Asked how he managed to survive, he said, "We need resources. We have been doing ok so far. We do receive money from private charitable foundations. We also receive a lot of support from people who send us small amounts in cheques. We are cost effective. We don't splurge on anything," he said.

On whether he worries about the adverse impact of his campaign on India's liberalising economy, he said, "It is possible but I am more concerned about those people who are at the receiving end. We should not be doing business with a company which does not believe in ethics."

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