Coke Loses Fizz at US Varsity Over India Plant
January 4, 2006

New York: A US varsity has suspended sale of Coca Cola on it campus after students launched a year-long campaign against the soft drinks company's practices in India and Colombia.

Students at the University of Michigan are happy that their administration has suspended the sale of Coca Cola products starting Jan 1.

The decision suspends 13 contracts with Coca Cola worth $1.4 million annually because the company has not agreed to protocols for a third-party review of labour practices in Colombia and has not developed protocols for reviewing environmental concerns in India.

"It was a definite victory in that the university has realised that Coca Cola is not acting on good faith and is not on deadline and not really committed," Jory Hearst, an activist in the campaign at the university, told IANS.

"We are concerned, however, with the language of the university that it is 'temporarily suspended' but we kind of expected that.

"So it is going to be really important for the campaign to continue and to continue pressure to make sure the actions that Coca Cola takes are truly acknowledging the issues and not using public relations as they have in the past four years. They deny as much as they can," Hearst maintained.

But the soft drinks behemoth hopes it can salvage its concerns in India and its contracts in the US. It is accused of depleting ground water reserves at its plant in Plachimada in the south Indian state of Kerala.

On Dec 29, 2004, after a year-long campaign by the Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality lodged a formal complaint about Coca Cola's business practices in India and Colombia, the university sent a letter to Coca Cola suspending sales on campus starting Jan 1.

The complaint alleged that Coke's bottling plants in these countries violated various provisions of the Vendor Code of Conduct of the University by fostering environmental practices in India that have depleted the groundwater and led to products with unacceptably high levels of pesticides.

Nine other universities in the US have suspended Coca Cola sales according to media reports. New York University, the largest private university in the country, banned Coca Cola products from Dec 8 last year.

Others that have done the same are Rutgers University in New Jersey, Santa Clara University in California, Salem State College in Massachusetts and the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

Coca Cola spokesperson Kari Bjorhus told IANS the company was pleased that the University of Michigan has indicated its belief that the company is "sincere in its desire to ensure fair labour practices and a safe working environment in Colombia, and sustainable environmental practices in India".

"The University of Michigan Dispute Review Board has made this decision based on our inability to reach an agreement for another third-party assessment before the deadline they had initially set.

"However, we are encouraged that the university has indicated its willingness to continue to work with us to resolve concerns regarding our operations in Colombia and India," Borhus emphasized.

On the accusation about depletion of ground water, Borjhus said that monsoon rains in Kerala over the last couple of years have not been normal, causing drought conditions generally.

"But the High Court of Kerala did a year-long study to determine if our plant had in fact been contributing to the ground water depletion in the area. This is conducted by various scientific experts. And they concluded that we had not contributed to the groundwater depletion," Borjhus contended.

The plant, which has been closed since March of 2004, was allowed to be reopened by the Kerala High Court but the local Panchayat has not given a carte blanche. Meanwhile, Kerala's customers were being provided the product from the several other plants in India.

"It's been kind of sad. I've been down to the plant myself. It's a beautiful plant. And inside the plant they have charts that they have been tracking showing how they have been reducing their use of groundwater steadily over the time that the plant was in operation.

"So they had been working very hard to conserve water. In fact, one of the things that they had installed in that plant was rain-water harvesting technology. So that they were collecting the monsoon rains and returning them to the aquifers," Borjhus argued.

Asked how the University of Michigan's complaints were going to be met, Borjhus implied activists had latched on to Coca Cola to get publicity.

"It's a very difficult situation because it is always hard to disprove an allegation and prove your innocence when allegations are made against you. It's much easier to make allegations.

"I think that in many ways, having a global brand is a wonderful thing. But the flipside is that it provides an opportunity for groups to attach their issue to your brand because they know they can get attention for it," Borjhus said but she admitted the problem of water shortage was "real" around the world.

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