Mehdiganj: Bottling Livelihoods
Dropping ground water levels in Varanasi district, Uttar Pradesh,
prompt a fresh crop of protest actions against Coca-Cola.
Shielding herself from the fierce afternoon sun with a bright dupatta,
Urmila lowers her bucket deep into the heart of the well. As she draws
out bucket after bucket of water, Urmila talks about how the water
level has never been this low. "The colour and quality of the water
has deteriorated over the last few years," she says. "But we are lucky.
A number of wells in our village [Mehdiganj in Varanasi district]
have gone dry this year."
A kilometre down the road, Nandlal and a motley crew of volunteers
from the Lok Samiti, a local people's group, continue an indefinite
protest against the company they think is the main culprit. "Coca-Cola
acquired a bottling plant in Mehdiganj in 1999," says Nandlal, the
Lok Samiti coordinator. Since then, the huge amounts of ground water
extracted by the plant have severely affected life in Mehdiganj and
Nandlal contends that the Coca-Cola plant's twin tubewells siphon
off close to 2.5 million of litres of drinking water a day from the
district's aquifer, resulting in a sharp fall in ground water levels,
dry wells and hand-pumps, and the destruction of local agriculture.
The company has also been charged with polluting fields and water
bodies with toxic effluents, lowering farm yield, encroaching on government
land, and intimidating local dissenters. Coca-Cola has denied all
Over the past few years, the most strident protests in the village
have been over the issue of water usage and pollution. Three successive
failed monsoons have left ground water as the principal source of
irrigation and raised the stakes for control over this common resource.
While public statements issued by Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private
Limited extol the community-driven, ecologically friendly virtues
of its plant, farmers allege that theplant's deep tubewells have put
ground water well beyond the reach of the villagers hand-pumps and
borewells. "We barely have enough water to drink, let alone irrigate
the fields," grumbles Kallu Pratap, a farmer in Mehdiganj. "And pollution
from the plant has destroyed our fields."
In 2002-2003, construction work of a national highway blocked the
plant's effluent discharge drain, flooding the nearby fields with
waste-water and destroying hectares of standing crop. Farmers say
that the effluent seeped into the soil, rendering it infertile. Coca-Cola
is also accused of providing toxic sludge from their factory as "free
fertiliser" for the regions' farmers, which activists say, has destroyed
Coca-Cola, for its part has denied any knowledge of such incidents.
During the course of its investigation, Frontline was unable to find
any farmer who had actually used the sludge. However, following complaints
about Coca-Cola bottling plants in Kerala and West Bengal, the Central
Pollution Control Board (CPCB) conducted a survey of 16 soft-drink
bottling plants across the country of which the effluent sludge of
eight Coca-Cola bottling plants was found to have unacceptably high
levels of cadmium, lead and chromium. Mehdiganj was one of them. "Our
study found that the solid waste of the Mehdiganj plant had a cadmium
concentration between 9mg/kg and 86mg/kg, which is far in excess of
the CPCB benchmark of 50mg/kg. Hence the sludge from the Mehdiganj
plant must be categorised as hazardous industrial waste and must be
treated as such," said P.M. Ansari, Additional Director, CPCB. "The
sludge also contained 220-538mg/kg of lead and 62-134mg/kg of chromium,
which are far in excess of the limits set by Municipal Solid Waste
[Handling and Management] Rules of 2000 for metal concentrations in
manure at 50mg/kg for chromium and 100mg/kg for lead." Ansari also
explained that the high heavy metal concentrations posed a health
risk if the sludge was not disposed of correctly. "The sludge must
be stored in lined, concrete landfills specifically designed for this
purpose," he said. At present Uttar Pradesh has no such landfills.
The company is also embroiled in a complicated land encroachment case
with the local gram panchayat. While Coca-Cola claims to have worked
out a land exchange pact with the panchayat, documents made available
to Frontline indicate that in 2005, Nitishwar Kumar, the District
Magistrate of Varanasi, was forced to remove the pradhan of Mehdiganj,
Ram Jivan Patel, from his post on charges of corruption. The District
Magistrate concluded that the pradhan had been compromised and had
acted out of monetary self-interest when he had signed a statement
acknowledging the receipt, without ever taking actual control of,
the disputed land from Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola, in retaliation, has launched a massive drive to "educate"
people on the benefits of the plant. Fliers, pamphlets and advertisements
published in local newspapers describe Coca-Cola as a vikas ka saathi,
or partner in progress, and detail the company's philanthropic efforts
in the realms of health, community service and environmental protection.
Coca-Cola is also suspected of launching a covert publicity campaign
through organisations such as the Sarv Daliya Kshetriya Vikas Morcha
that directly question Nandlal's claims and offer counterclaims of
their own. The company refers to itself as an "integral part of the
social fabric of Mehdiganj", and states that it is taking all possible
measures to minimise water consumption, including recycling significant
amounts of water, and treating all their effluents as per government
The company has also indicated it draws about 500, 000 litres of water
a day - about a fifth of Nandlal's figure. Figures made available
to Frontline by the Uttar Pradesh wing of the CPCBare similar to the
figures released by the company. Coca-Cola has also released ground
water data, verified by Sheo Shanker Singh, a senior hydrologist for
Varanasi Division's Ground Water Department, illustrating that the
water table in the area has remained more or less stable over the
past decade. At the Arazi line (where the plant is located), the water
level has actually risen from 8.76 metres below ground level to 6.10
metres below ground level. Sheo Shanker Singh could not be contacted
by Frontline to account for this increase in water levels at a time
Six years into the struggle, the battle lines are clearly drawn. With
both sides deeply entrenched in positions of mutual distrust, all
information seems coloured by its sources. While, in some instances
the claims of activists appear exaggerated, Coca-Cola's assertion
that the water table has actually risen appears suspect.
If press reports are to be believed, 2006 could be one of Varanasi
district's driest years. An April 2 report in Hindustan suggests that
intense drinking water shortage in the villages has prompted the district
administration to order the digging of 119 new ponds and reservoirs
to complement the 97 ponds dug last year. The report concludes by
stating that sections within the district administration are pushing
for tanker supply of freshwater to the villages. "There is no question
that the water table is falling," says Ganapati Misra, Executive Engineer,
Varanasi Jal Nigam. While refusing to comment on the bottling plant,
Misra confirmed that pumps and wells in the district had gone dry,
and that the administration was considering "all possible options
for increasing fresh water supplies".
However, even if water levels across the district have fallen, it
is difficult to attribute all water scarcity to the bottling plant
in Mehdiganj. Over the last few years the Mehdiganj issue has found
its way from dusty Varanasi to shareholder meetings in Coca-Cola's
headquarters in the United States.
One issue remains buried under the accusations and counter-accusations:
despite using Mehdiganj's ground water as the principal ingredient
for its products, Coca-Cola, like other soft-drink companies, pays
nothing apart from a marginal water cess on the raw material. Despite
drawing nearly 13 million litres of water in 2003, the bottling plant
paid a water cess ranging from three to 30 paise a thousand litres
depending on usage. The product, by contrast, was sold at Rs.10 per
300 ml. It is disparities such as these that fuel people's movements
- disparities that need to be addressed before all common property
resources are left at the mercy of market forces.
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