Battle-hardened Indian Villagers Take on Coke
By Rina Chandran
October 28, 2005

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 barren."

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 environmental damage.

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 European limits.

Coke and Pepsi rejected the findings. Beverage sales slipped briefly, then recovered.


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 secret formula.

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 in Moolathara.

"This small hut has become a big symbol of local resistance," said Ajayan.

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