Bush-Coke-Pepsi Triumvirate Under Fire in India
NEW YORK, Aug 21 (OneWorld) - The Bush administration is facing fierce
criticism across India for backing the Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola companies
in their fight with local authorities and consumer groups.
Last week, the two multibillion-dollar soft drink giants were forced
to wind up their operations in the state of Kerala over charges of
selling substandard products that could pose health risks.
The cola companies are already facing full or partial bans in six
other Indian states as a result of a growing nationwide campaign by
environmental groups and local communities.
Researchers at the Center for Science and Environment, an independent
group, say they have conducted various studies that clearly show pesticide
residues in Coca Cola and Pepsi products in India were 24 times higher
than European Union standards.
Both companies have categorically denied this charge, amid assertions
that their products are safe and pose no risk to human health.
However, they have mostly failed to convince local health officials
in many parts of the country. The cola companies have been ordered
by the Indian Supreme Court to reveal the contents of their products
within the next six months.
Those campaigning against the cola operations in India say they are
furious over the U.S. government's refusal to consider local environmental
concerns and its seemingly unconditional support for the two companies.
"The U.S. government should let the Indian government decide what
is safe for the Indian public," said R. Ajayan of the Plachimada Solidarity
Committee in Kerala, in response to a senior U.S. trade official's
criticism of India's action against the companies.
"This is a setback for the Indian economy," Franklin Lavin, the U.S.
undersecretary for international trade, told Agency France Press in
an interview following the Kerala ban on Coca Cola and Pepsi products.
"In a time when India is working hard to attract and retain foreign
investment," Lavin said, "it would unfortunate if the discussions
were dominated by those who did not want to treat foreign companies
Lavin, a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, who has also held senior
management positions at Citibank, is due to lead a business delegation
to India in November to explore new investment opportunities.
Activists charge that the cola companies are trying to use political
influence in India to avert the ban on the sale of their products
and that Lavin's comments demonstrate the Bush administration's efforts
to favor those who financed its election campaigns in the past.
In 2004, the George W. Bush presidential campaign received more than
$380,000 from Coca Cola and its affiliates, according to the India
Resource Center, an international campaign group that works closely
with local activists.
"Coca Cola has strategically bought its way onto the good side of
the Bush administration," said the Center's Amit Srivastava, "which
is now returning the favor for the financial support."
Lavin has accused India of treating U.S. companies "unfairly," but
activists like Srivastava think that is not true.
"It is ridiculous," he says, "It's the other way round."
Srivastava and others say this is not the first time U.S. officials
are intervening on behalf of Coca Cola and that their actions in the
past leave no doubt that they are willing to discount human rights
when commercial interests are at stake.
In 2002, for example, when Coca Cola sought a waiver of the company's
mandatory public listing in India, a condition that had been placed
on its entry into the country, some senior U.S. officials left no
stone unturned to seek a favorable action from Indian officials.
"I understand this is the second time that Coca Cola's waiver request
has been denied," said William Lash, then assistant secretary of the
U.S. Department of Commerce, in a letter to the Indian authorities.
"I find it to be very unfortunate," he added, "not just for the company,
but also for India's investment climate."
The Indian government ultimately approved the waiver request.
Activists say the U.S. perception of "investment climate" as represented
by both Lash and Lavin is not shared by most Indians who care foremost
about local communities and the environment.
"American companies cannot get away with exploitation of natural resources
or subversion of the standardization process in the name of foreign
investment," says Nandlal Master of Lok Samiti, a community organization
in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.
In the area of Mehdigang in Uttar Pradesh, local activists like Master
who have challenged Coca Cola say they are facing severe water shortages
and pollution as a result of the company's bottling operations.
Sawai Singh, who works with a local community group that has challenged
the Coca Cola operations in Kala Dera in the state of Rajasthan, seems
no less resentful of foreign companies' presence.
"Maybe it is time for the U.S. to reduce its investment," he says.
"The U.S. companies have gobbled up many Indian-owned companies. They
have destroyed livelihoods for a large number of Indians."
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