Coke, Pepsi Face Public Ire
NEW DELHI - A month after seven Indian states imposed severe restrictions
on the sale of colas and other aerated drinks, the Coca-Cola company
has become the target of a vigorous popular campaign in Uttar Pradesh,
India's largest state.
The campaign's focus is on Coke's bottling plant at Mehdiganj, a small
town 35 km from the holy city of Varanasi (Benares), on the Ganges.
The plant stands charged with overexploiting groundwater and polluting
it with toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and chromium.
Led by the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), the agitation
demands that the Mehdiganj plant be shut down, just as another Coke
bottling facility, at Plachimada in southern Kerala state, was shut
down in March 2004 for mining fresh water and spreading pollution.
The campaign got a major boost last month when the Centre for Science
and Environment (CSE), an environmental policy-oriented non-governmental
organization (NGO) announced the results of a study, which found that
soft drinks sold in India, including those made by Coca-Cola and Pepsico,
contain a cocktail of pesticides at concentrations far higher than
considered permissible by national authorities and the World Heath
CSE, which has established a formidable reputation for accurate data-gathering
and sharp analysis, tested numerous branded aerated drinks sampled
from different parts of India. The sample included 28 Coke brands
and 29 more from Pepsi.
CSE subjected these to rigorous testing, and found that they have
average pesticide concentrations that are about 20 to 25 times higher
than the maximum permissible accepted by the official Bureau of Indian
For instance, Coke's flagship drink contains pesticide 26.8 times
the maximum permissible level. Pepsi Cola contains 30.4 times more.
These numbers shocked the public and led to outright bans on the manufacture
or distribution of colas in Kerala. Six other states, including Karnataka,
imposed tough restrictions on the sale of soft drinks within or in
proximity of schools, colleges and government offices. There are signs
that more of India's 28 states will follow suit.
A cross-section of India's political parties is demanding an outright
ban on all soft drinks bottled by multinational corporations. Together,
Coke and Pepsi nearly monopolise the soft drinks market in India and
sell 355 million cases each year -- though sales have stagnated since
More than the pesticides it is water extraction that is making soft
drink manufacturers unpopular. NAPM says that the excessive extraction
by the Mehdiganj plant has led to depletion of groundwater in an area
known for abundant water availability, due to its location in the
According to R. Chandrika, an engineer who studied the water situation,
"ninety percent of the wells around the area have been affected. As
many as 39 percent of shallow wells and hand-pumps have either dried
up or are in the process of drying up." She said the water table around
Mehdiganj has dropped by an average of 18 feet (5.5 metres); there
is a severe water shortage in more than 20 villages.
The Indian anti-cola campaign began in 2002, at Plachimada, where
villagers were incensed that water levels had sunk and drinking water
was contaminated with evil smelling chemicals as a result of Coke's
plant. On Apr. 22 that year, they launched a permanent vigil at the
plant. Two years later, they succeeded in having its licence cancelled.
Concerns about groundwater contamination with heavy metals have been
greatly heightened recently. Last November, two NGOs, the People's
Science Institute and the Hazards Centre, tested water from wells
one km away from the Plachimada plant. They found lead residues five
times higher than the maximum permissible levels recommended by the
WHO. Cadmium content was 25 times higher than permissible and chromium
concentrations 50 times higher.
"We are getting similar reports from different parts of the country,"
says Sandeep Pandey, NAPM national coordinator and a highly respected
social activist who won the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay award for emergent
leadership. "Studies by the Central Pollution Control Board confirm
Pandey hopes to link the Indian agitation to the growing worldwide
campaign against Coke focused on unethical means, including violence
against union activists, low labour standards and aggressive marketing
Last month, the students' union at University of Sussex in Britain
banned all Coca-Cola beverages as reaction to alleged human rights
abuses in Colombia. The "Campaign to Stop Killer Coke" is active in
130 university campuses worldwide, including 70 in the United States
The latest disclosures on toxicity have caused a ten percent drop
in sales. This has affected the profits of the 1.55 billion US dollar
industry in India, which launched a publicity blitz claiming, that
its drinks are "safe". TV advertisements currently show Rajeev Bakshi,
the chief executive officer of PepsiCo in India, personally endorsing
the safety of the beverage.
The health ministry has promised to conduct its own investigations.
But it has been silent on why the BIS, which has finalised the safety
standards for pesticides, has not notified them or put them into force.
The BIS's failure to notify permissible residue levels and demand
industry's compliance is no accident. The Bureau has been under tremendous
pressure from the industry and from pro-industry government agencies.
In the past too, BIS delayed formulating standards for bottled water,
one of India's fastest growing industries, thanks to widespread contamination
and pollution of water sources.
However, once the standards were notified, companies started using
processes like reverse osmosis (RO) to purify water to a high degree.
As a consequence, the quality of bottled water sold in India has improved
Coke did get some of its drinks tested by a British laboratory. But
this was a paid job and the samples were chosen by Coke itself. This
does not constitute an independent study.
Second, the industry threatened to sue CSE for defamation but backed
off when the NGO's director, Sunita Narain, called its bluff. Narain
and the CSE are recipients of the 2005 Stockholm Water Prize.
Coke and Pepsi even got the U.S. government to intercede on their
behalf. Ahead of the arrival of a large trade mission from the U.S.,
undersecretary for international trade, Franklin L. Lavin, warned
India that a ban on soft drinks could "affect investment".
An attempt was made to blame the high pesticide levels on sugar, which
accounts for ten percent of the soft drink content. But several prestigious
laboratories in India analysed sugar samples and found them pesticide-free.
The real culprit is the water that the soft drinks companies use.
According to an industry insider, the companies use relatively cheap
filters to remove gross impurities, and some (but not all) microbes.
They will use RO techniques if forced to. But RO is expensive and
will raise overheads.
While the government is committed to an "investor friendly" climate
and to promoting consumerism, including processed foods and drinks,
it cannot provide popularity to any product. In the people's eyes,
Coke and Pepsi now stand for dirt and poison. (END/2006)
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