Battle-hardened Indian Villagers Take on Coke
MOOLATHARA, India - A year after village elders shut down one of Coca-Cola's
biggest plants in India saying it polluted the groundwater, protests
against the soft drink giant are still taking place outside the factory.
At a hut in the farming village of Moolathara in the southern state
of Kerala, a disparate group of farmers, labourers and activists gather
each day to carry on their "David and Goliath" battle.
They worry Coke will try to re-open the plant, which they say has
contaminated and depleted their water supply.
"Let people come here and drink the water, bathe in it and see for
themselves," says 56-year-old Mylamma, a tribal grey-haired woman,
who worked as a farmhand. "We can't find work because the fields are
Coke rejects the charges and has appealed against the village council's
decision to cancel its license in March 2004, four years after the
factory was built.
Kerala government pollution officials have said the factory's effluent
treatment was inadequate and that its bio-solids, or sludge, had high
quantities of cadmium and other pollutants.
But Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, the world's largest soft drink maker,
said water shortages in the area have been caused by low rainfall
over two successive years.
"Allegations that we are depleting the groundwater are not based on
scientific evidence," a Coke spokesman said.
The company also says the plant was built in line with its global
environmental standards and was audited regularly for compliance.
It gave Reuters more than 300 pages of documents to support its stand,
including legal appeals filed, expert comments and results of laboratory
tests it commissioned to show the plant was not responsible for any
This is not the first time a big multinational has come under attack
in India. Rival Pepsi and its fast food brand KFC, biotech giant Monsanto
Co. and the defunct Enron have faced of charges of neglect, ranging
from environmental to cultural issues.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi were slammed last year by a parliamentary panel
which upheld an environmental report that found 12 samples of beverages
made by the two companies contained pesticide residues many times
Coke and Pepsi rejected the findings. Beverage sales slipped briefly,
ONE OF LARGEST
The closed Plachimada plant, among the largest of Coke's 68 in India,
cost about 800 million rupees to build and had the capability of filling
900 bottles a minute.
Sprawling across more than 14 ha (34 acres), the plant, which at first
employed 450 people now has just 70. A big iron gate manned by security
guards stays mostly shut.
"If the company starts production, we will start a blockade and physically
stop anyone from going in or out," said R. Ajayan of the Plachimada
Solidarity Council, which has declared several districts in this southwestern
state "Coke free."
"This has been a peaceful protest so far, but that can change in future.
We will fight to the last man."
India accounts for less than 1 percent of Coke's global sales, and
per capita consumption of soft drinks is among the lowest in the world.
But Coke has almost 60 percent of the market.
Coke's sales in India fell 14 percent in the second quarter this year
-- the peak season for beverage sales -- despite an annual spend of
almost 800 million rupees on advertising and promotional events.
The company returned to India in 1993, more than 15 years after it
was thrown out by a socialist government for refusing to give up its
It has invested almost $1 billion in India -- and taken over the local
company that filled its shoes, Thums Up -- but protesters like the
ones at the plant in Kerala are fighting its ambitions to expand in
Asia's third-largest economy.
Its red delivery trucks are often the target of protests in India,
and hundreds of people have signed a dog-eared log book in the hut
"This small hut has become a big symbol of local resistance," said
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.