Concerns on "Constructive Engagement" with Coca-Cola and NUS Process
March 27, 2006

Dear Members of the National Union of Students, UK:

We are writing on behalf of communities in India who have been adversely impacted by the Coca-Cola company's practices across the country.

We understand that the National Union of Students will be debating the merits of continuing to do business with the Coca-Cola company or not, at the upcoming NUS annual general meeting from March 27-30, 2006. We also understand that certain "briefing" documents have been produced to assist the delegates in making an informed decision on the matter.

The India Resource Center works directly with communities in India to hold the Coca-Cola company accountable for its crimes in India. We campaign internationally to challenge the Coca-Cola company, and the India Resource Center has been a key organization in the international campaign to apply pressure on the company-by removing access to key markets such as colleges and universities-until the company cleans up its act in India.

We welcome thorough investigations into the allegations being made against the Coca-Cola company by communities in India, and indeed, we expect a rigorous investigation by prestigious institutions such as the National Union of Students, a body that represents the interests of over 5 million students in the UK.

We are, however, extremely disappointed in the process undertaken by the National Union of Students and affiliated organizations such as the National Union of Students Services Limited (NUSSL) to investigate issues in India so far.

We strongly feel that a lack of due process has severely hampered the so called findings by the NUS and NUSSL, and as a result, the majority of NUS delegates do not have access to the salient and compelling reasons for ending contractual relationships with the Coca-Cola company.

We would like to bring attention to some conspicuous flaws in the process that negate the spirit and intent of any process meant to genuinely investigate the issues regarding Coca-Cola in India.

Lack of Process

At last year's NUS AGM, a motion was passed that resolved, among other things, that NUS will:
  1. publicise the allegations against Coca-Cola and the findings of NUSSL's E&E Committee to all member unions
  2. distribute material produced by the Columbia Solidarity Campaign, the India Resource Centre (IRC) and NUSSL's E&E Committee to all CMs
  3. mandate NUS Environment Committee to research the validity of the Indian and Colombian allegations through engaging with stakeholders such as SINALTRAINAL and IRC and to work with student action groups such as People and Planet to publicise these issues on campus
  4. follow advice from NUS Environment committee on the use of their share holding in NUSSL at NUSSL convention 2006 in relation to renewal of Coca-Cola contracts and Coca Cola's compliance with SINALTRAINAL's demands.

The India Resource Center would like to note that we have never been contacted by any official of the National Union of Students or the NUS Environment Committee for the purpose of seeking materials from us to publicize and distribute regarding the allegations in India, as was resolved at last year's AGM.

Also, the India Resource Center has not been contacted by any official of the National Union of Students or the NUS Environment Committee to assist them in researching the validity of the Indian allegations, as was resolved at last year's conference.

In our opinion, the lack of communication with the India Resource Center violates the very spirit and intent of the resolution passed at last year's NUS AGM. In fact, the very moment that we are at today - with NUS poised to debate once again on the issues surrounding Coca-Cola in India - is suspect because the NUS has failed significantly to meet the resolution it had been mandated to by conference last year.

Deeply Flawed NUSSL Findings

The NUS has successfully met its obligation of distributing the findings of NUSSL's Ethics & Environment Committee to all member unions. However, the India Resource Center considers NUSSL's findings to be seriously flawed and one-sided, compounding the problems already created by the lack of engagement by the NUS with the India Resource Center.

According to the briefing produced by National Union of Students Services Limited (NUSSL), its Ethical and Environmental Committee is involved in constructive engagement with the Coca-Cola company in relation to the accusations relating to India.

We find NUSSL's involvement with the Coca-Cola company to be neither constructive (as things have only worsened for communities in India) or engaging (since communities in India have never once been asked for their input into the involvement).

A cursory examination of the process undertaken by NUSSL, as well as the results produced by NUSSL's Ethical and Environmental Committee, speaks for itself.

Since December 12, 2003, NUSSL has met with officials of the Coca-Cola company at least 10 times. NUSSL has never met with communities in India, ever.

We, at the India Resource Center, remain stupefied by the exclusion of the primary stakeholder in the entire issue with the Coca-Cola company - the communities in India. The engagement of the communities in India is absolutely necessary to forge any "constructive" dialogue relating to Coca-Cola's alleged crimes in India.

According to NUSSL, constructive engagement "involves working within a relationship to resolve an issue". We fail to understand how an issue can be resolved without the involvement of the main parties that have initiated the campaign, in this case, the communities in India.

There is no excuse for meeting with the Coca-Cola company on at least ten separate occasions and excluding the communities in India every time. We expect such a tactic from the Coca-Cola company itself, not an institution affiliated with the prestigious National Union of Students.

The results of the so called constructive engagement has been the briefing, a woefully inadequate document that literally copies and pastes from Coca-Cola documents. The communities in India, the primary stakeholder- are neither informed, invited or consulted.

The result of such inadequate consultation with affected communities in India is a heavily biased document that has no support from the communities in India. It enjoys no credibility whatsoever by communities in India and their allies. The briefing fails miserably in reflecting the situation in India because its has failed to engage communities in India, relying primarily on responses from the Coca-Cola company.

For example, under the section "Are the allegations true?", the briefing states that "At this time, it is difficult to say." We are unclear as to what NUSSL considers proof. The state government of Kerala as well as the primary pollution regulatory agency in Kerala, have both found the Coca-Cola company to be extracting too much water and causing pollution, respectively. These are government bodies, and as such, enjoy tremendous authority and credibility in India.

Yet another example of inadequate findings by NUSSL comes in the document entitled "Summary of the accusations of water shortages and negative environmental impacts caused by nine bottling operations/factories used in the manufacture of Coca-Cola products in India". The document claims that "In June 2005, the panchayat renewed the operating license." What the document fails to mention is that it was a three month temporary license with 13 conditions, including the condition that Coca-Cola could not draw water from the groundwater resource. The license was not acceptable to the Coca-Cola company. The result is that the Coca-Cola bottling plant still remains shut down, 9 months after the event that NUSSL mentions. We find the omission of such a significant action to be highly misleading and extremely problematic.

The briefing does not mention extremely significant actions against the Coca-Cola company in India that confirm the company's guilt. Some of these include:
  • The state government of Kerala challenging Coca-Cola's right to extract water in Kerala to the Supreme Court of India in September 2005, stating that "poor villages are deprived of drinking water due to overuse of ground water by Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada to produce bottled drinks for sale to people who have purchasing capacity in different cities of the country." The action of the state government is extremely significant because it aligns the state government with the communities in Kerala-opposed to Coca-Cola.
  • The notice by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board to the Coca-Cola company in August 2005 to "stop production of all kinds of products with immediate effect" because of the high levels of lead and cadmium found around the company's bottling plant.
  • The fact that the US Food and Drug Administration has rejected Coca-Cola products made in India from entering the US on at least 10 occasions in the year 2005 alone, citing that the "Coca-Cola products do not conform to US laws" and that they are "unsafe for the US public". This is in direct conflict with Coca-Cola's position that their products use one global standard and are completely safe.
  • The suspicious death of village council president, Mr. V. Kamsan, who had publicly opposed Coca-Cola's proposed operations. Mr. Kamsan's wife has filed a petition in Chennai High Court, accusing Coca-Cola company officials of causing her husband's death, and the Coca-Cola company is now the subject of an investigation in the matter.
  • The continued use of violence by police against protesters challenging Coca-Cola and the introduction of trumped up charges against the protesters-all actions that the Coca-Cola company has been connected with.
  • The damning report by the Central Ground Water Board of India that has confirmed water table level drop by 10 meters ever since Coca-Cola started operations in Kala Dera, in Rajasthan.

The situation in India is very different from what the briefing developed by NUSSL purports to be.

In India, the water scarcity for communities living around Coca-Cola's bottling plants continue to worsen. In addition, the water quality as a result of pollution also continues to worsen, severely affecting accessibility to water for literally tens of thousands of people in India, mostly farmers, indigenous people and lower castes.

It is very clear that constructive engagement has produced no positive results on the part of the Coca-Cola company's practices in India. In fact, during the period of the constructive engagement, the water crisis has exacerbated for communities in India directly as a result of Coca-Cola's operations.

To communities in India, the constructive engagement pursued by NUSSL has led to the development of a heavily biased document that has failed completely to capture the reality of the situation in India.

Misrepresentation of India Resource Center

NUSSL's briefing also errs in its description of its engagement with the India Resource Center. The India Resource Center has met with NUSSL once, in October 2004. The India Resource Center made it clear that meeting with us was not a substitute for meeting with affected communities in India. In fact, the primary reason for us meeting with NUSSL was to ensure that we made it possible for NUSSL to engage directly with communities in India. When asked why NUSSL had not engaged with the communities in India, the answer was the lack of resources and time.

The India Resource Center offered to pay the entire costs for one member from NUSSL to visit communities in India.

NUSSL, in April 2005, agreed to accept funds from the India Resource Center with 4 conditions.
  1. That the visit could only go ahead with the co-endorsement of both the IRC and Coca-Cola. We would therefore be looking for Coca-Cola to pay half of our overall visit costs.
  2. That we will spend approximately the same amount of time with Coca-Cola officials as we will with yourself and your colleagues and contacts. This is to ensure that the visit is not biased.
  3. That we will have the absolute right to determine the remit and agenda of any visit.
  4. The aim of the visit will NOT be to establish a judgement on any of the allegations against the Company. The aim is to ensure that the information we have is correct, and to engage with all stakeholders to develop a strategy for preventing future incidents from occurring.

The India Resource Center expressed concerns about using the visit to also meet with Coca-Cola because by April 2005, NUSSL had already met with Coca-Cola company officials EIGHT times, and never once with communities in India.

However, NUSSL's assertion that "the India Resource Center did not agree to it (the visit to India) because they would not want the visit to include time spent with representatives from the bottling factory" is simply untrue. We would like NUSSL to produce the document where we said such a thing.

The reason that the India Resource Center pulled out (after consultation with groups in India) was because of the fourth condition, that "The aim of the visit will NOT be to establish a judgement on any of the allegations against the Company. The aim is to .develop a strategy for preventing future incidents from occurring."

The India Resource Center protested strongly the criteria that past and current crimes of Coca-Cola would not be looked at. What is the point of visiting India without looking at past and current crimes of Coca-Cola? We also felt that it is best left to the people in India to decide the future of the Coca-Cola company in India, and that the best that NUSSL and NUS can do is to apply pressure on the company to hold it accountable for the damages it has created and continues to exacerbate.

In fact, the primary purpose of our engagement with college and university students in the UK is to apply pressure on the Coca-Cola company-by ceasing to do business with the company-until it cleans up the mess it has created in India.

Unethical Practice by NUSSL

We are also deeply alarmed at the communication sent out by the NUS Services on November 22, 2005, with the subject "Key arguments for Constructive Engagement". The email suggests that members pass an attached resolution that favors constructive engagement with Coca-Cola, and not boycott. According to the email, "Those calling for a boycott are jeopardising our ability to keep pushing Coca-Cola towards better business practice."

While we respect every individual's right to have their personal opinion about the direction that NUS Services should adopt in regards to the Coca-Cola contract, we also feel that NUSSL sending out such a communication favoring constructive engagement over boycott is premature, and in fact, unethical. It speaks to a deeper structural issue with NUS Services, where some members seem to feel empowered enough to take an activist position on the matter, even though the process of educating the NUS members is incomplete.

We are not sure how to approach this matter. As it is, the process that NUSSL has engaged in is deeply flawed as a result of their numerous meetings with the Coca-Cola company while excluding communities from India. And NUSSL then further damaged its credibility (and any sense to be fair) by sending out communication prior to end of the debate suggesting that members vote their way.

Is NUSSL accountable to NUS and the students? Through their actions, we think not.

Next Steps

The National Union of Students is in a unique position to bring justice closer to thousands of people in India who are being adversely affected by Coca-Cola's practices. From what we know, this is not a new position for NUS. NUS has taken positive actions in the past to support campaigns for justice and lend solidarity by using its political leverage. Communities in India are now asking NUS to exercise its political and financial leverage to bring about justice for communities in India.

Money, and profits, seems to be the only language that the Coca-Cola company understands. It is for this reason that we have chosen this path-to cut Coca-Cola's access to markets until the time that they clean up their act in India.

The so called constructive engagement that NUSSL has undertaken with the Coca-Cola company to ostensibly resolve the crisis in India has not only been ineffective, but conditions have gotten worse for many communities in India. As of March 23, 2006, over 20 villages in the vicinity of Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Mehdiganj, in northern India, have embarked upon an indefinite vigil against the bottling plant. They want the plant to be shut down immediately because the summer months are approaching-Coca-Cola's peak production time - and also the worst water scarcity for communities.

What has NUSSL's constructive engagement done to ameliorate the conditions in Mehdiganj? Absolutely nothing.

We would like to suggest that NUS remain cautious of endorsing an empty process such as the constructive engagement that NUSSL has adopted. The Coca-Cola company, with one of the most efficient public relations machinery in the world, is very savvy when it comes to dealing with criticism.

The Coca-Cola company is using the constructive engagement process to whitewash its crimes in India. As such, NUSSL is complicit in the continued abuses of communities in India. We expect much better from NUS, and we are confident that students in the UK do not want to be part of the problem. They want to be part of the solution.

The steps forward are to genuinely engage in a process that allows for a fair and just investigation into the issues in India, a far cry from what is being presented to the student body in the UK.

We expect and welcome an investigation into the allegations surrounding Coca-Cola's practices in India. It is on the basis of facts that prestigious public institutions such as the University of Michigan in the United States suspended their contractual relationships with the Coca-Cola company on January 1, 2006. At the University of Michigan, however, both sides were listened to, an element sorely missing from the debate leading up to the NUS AGM.

Communities in India ask that NUS use its financial leverage to not renew the contracts with the Coca-Cola company until the time that the demands of the communities in India are met.

And communities in India welcome a fair and thorough investigation into the issues in India, as we are confident that facts speak for themselves.

We are also supportive of the call for a boycott of Coca-Cola products by the Colombian union Sinaltrainal.

Please feel free to contact us at info@IndiaResource.org We will also be on site at the NUS AGM in Blackpool from March 28-30 and can be reached at +44 7731 865 591.

Thank you and in solidarity,

India Resource Center

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