The Fizz Of Rage
Ire against Coke spreads in its own land, and there's an Indian
link fuelling it
When students of the University of Michigan returned from their winter
break this week, they found the vending machines on their campus having
no Coca-Cola products.
The discovery sent a round of cheers among students who have been
campaigning against Coke for allegedly causing environmental pollution
in India (a court case is on in Kerala) and following dubious labour
practices in Colombia.
Their sustained campaign, under the aegis of the Coalition to Cut
the Contract with Coca-Cola (CCCC), yielded result as the varsity
suspended the purchase of Coke products beginning January 1, in the
process joining a band of over 10 academic institutions in the US
to have imposed such a boycott. The vending machines on the campus
will either remain empty or will be stocked with other brands—department
heads have been instructed not to buy Coca-Cola products on official
accounts. Students, however, can still buy Coke at the varsity's restaurant
chains that have separate pacts with the soft drink giant.
The campaign against Coke began in November 2004.
Then, the University of Michigan's Students Organizing for Labor and
Economic Equality had lodged a formal complaint with the varsity that
Coca-Cola's bottling plants in India were guilty of depleting groundwater
and precipitating drought conditions.
The students also accused it of using water contaminated with pesticides
to prepare its beverages in India, and the paramilitary to intimidate
and kill union members in Colombia.
Subsequently, the university's dispute review board said it could
not vouch for Coke's compliance with the code of conduct that governs
vendors, and recommended additional assessment to determine whether
it is guilty of groundwater depletion and disposal of hazardous bio-solid
wastes in India. Till then, the board suggested that the varsity not
enter into new contracts or renew any expiring contracts (worth $1.4
million) with Coke, which has 27 company-owned and 17 franchisee-owned
bottling operations in India.
Coca-Cola Co rubbishes the allegations. Company spokeswoman Kari Bjorhus
told Outlook, "It's well known that pesticides are widely used in
agriculture in India, and if misused have the potential to contaminate
water sources and agricultural products." But, she said, water used
in Coke products is passed through a multi-barrier water treatment
system designed to "ensure every drop is safe for use in our beverages".
Also, in a December 16 letter to the University of Michigan, the company
claims that it has "continued to reduce water use ratios in India
(24 per cent between 2000 and 2004—from 5.12 litres per litre of product
to 3.9). In fact, through our rainwater harvesting initiative in Kerala,
we would be surely able to return a substantial percentage of the
water we remove from the aquifers."
The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi counters
Coke's claims, noting that a parliamentary committee had dismissed
precisely those assertions made by Bjorus. CSE director Sunita Narain
described the water harvesting claim as fraudulent. "We found it was
not even beginning to harvest 1/10th of the water it was using," she
said. In fact, the Coke plant in Plachimada near Palakkad in Kerala
has remained closed because of litigation on environmental issues
since March 2004.
What galls some CCCC activists of the university is that the suspension
of contract with Coke is not permanent—and can be renewed later. Kristin
Purdy, a CCCC member, says she is concerned that the varsity still
maintains Coca-Cola is acting in "good faith" despite its purported
environmental and human rights violations. In a December 29 letter
to Coca-Cola, the university's executive vice president Timothy Slottow
and associate vice president (finance) Peggy Norgen said the varsity
plans to resume procurement of Coca-Cola products "if. ..we can agree
on the process for a third-party review of environmental concerns
Adri Miller, a sophomore at the university, says she would be "disappointed
and enraged" if the varsity renewed its contracts with Coca-Cola.
"There are more issues of abuse in other countries. We have plenty
of information against Coke that we can keep filing," she told Outlook.
Another sophomore, Lindsey Rogers, says many students on the campus
feel the battle against Coca-Cola is a worthy cause. "There are others,"
she admits, "who say every MNC does this, so why fight Coke. To me
that is not a credible argument—that if everything is bad you shouldn't
do anything to change it."
In New York, Ray Rogers, who runs the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke
that has worked with student activists, says the University of Michigan
should have acted against the MNC many months ago. "The world of Coca-Cola
is full of lies, deception and abuses. It is a company that has brought
hardship and despair to people in Colombia, India, Mexico and Ghana,
and I could go on," he said.
Assistance in the campaign against Coke has also come from the San
Francisco-based India Resource Center, which is working with communities
in India and student organisations across North America and the United
Kingdom to make the case against Coca-Cola. Amit Srivastava from the
center believes "prestigious universities must not engage in contractual
relations with firms that engage in unethical practices". Breathlessly
listing universities contemplating action against Coke, Srivastava
warns, "Coke will continue to lose lucrative contracts with more colleges
and universities unless it cleans up its act in India".
Sunita Narain feels the action of American varsities against Coke
only "shows that consumers won't take blatant violations lying down,
and particularly so if the boycott comes from America—the land of
Coke." Lindsey Rogers is confident the growing momentum of protests
on US campuses would impact on the firm. "So many people have been
protesting against Coke in India and Colombia but we never hear about
it in the US media. Now when the University of Michigan suspends Coke
contracts everyone is writing about it." She then adds ominously,
"Our biggest weapon against them is their reputation."
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