Coca-Cola: Only a Model for Good PR
Amit Srivastava
Guest Opinion
Economic Times
March 28, 2008

The Coca-Cola company and its CEO, Mr Neville Isdell, must be congratulated for some excellent public relations work lately, and in particular, in India. Neville Isdell was the “guest editor” of ET (March 17, 2008) and he used the platform to pull off a wonderful public relations coup - create an image of itself that it clearly is not.

In his edit ‘A new model of sustainability’, Mr Isdell writes that we must view business from a “broader context” and that if the communities are not sustainable, then the business is not sustainable. We must agree. But Coca-Cola is the least qualified company to talk about new ways of operating and building sustainable communities, given its track record in India.

Not once in the entire issue, which also included a lengthy section on corporate social responsibility, did the crisis that Coca-Cola creates and faces in India find mention. We feel it is time to set the record straight and away from the spin of Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola’s bottling plants in India are the target of many community-led campaigns, accusing the company of worsening water shortages in areas where it operates and polluting the scarce remaining water and soil. In a very high profile case, one of Coca-Cola’s largest bottling plants in India, in Plachimada, Kerala, has been shut down since March 2004 because government and independent agencies have confirmed that the bottling plant has polluted the water and soil in the area.

Coca-Cola, in the past, has rejected the campaigns against it in India as being not based on facts and the agenda of anti-globalisation activists. But the momentum has turned against Coca-Cola, as various government and independent studies confirm what the communities who live around the bottling plants have been saying all along -that the company is responsible for exacerbating water crises and pollution.

In what must have been a shocker for Coca-Cola, a study that it paid for (and conducted by TERI) released earlier this year was a scathing indictment of the company’s operations in India. The company was forced to agree to an assessment of its operations in India, a result of a sustained international campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable.

Not surprisingly, the study found no mention in Mr Isdell’s edition. Coca-Cola’s own study has recommended that it shut down its bottling plant in Kala Dera in Rajasthan. The study found that the “plant’s operations in this area would continue to be one of the contributors to a worsening water situation and a source of stress to the communities around.”

Noting that Coca-Cola has not respected the rights of farmers and groundwater conditions, the study also warned Coca-Cola about declining water conditions around another campaign hotspot - Mehdiganj in Uttar Pradesh. Bolstered by the study, the community of Mehdiganj will be holding a demonstration against the bottling plant later this month.

The study by TERI also found that in the plants assessed, not one plant had met the Coca-Cola company’s own wastewater treatment standards. What is the point of having your own standards, we ask, if you don’t meet them? And the study found an alarming incidence of pollution in the immediate vicinity of Coca-Cola’s bottling plants.

The assessment, which covered only six plants (out of fifty) is very clear that the Coca-Cola company has located its bottling plants in India from strictly a “business continuity” perspective that has not taken the wider context into perspective.

So where is the placing of the business in a “broader context” that the Coca-Cola CEO talked about in his edit? Surely not in India. And sustainable communities? Coca-Cola’s own study has confirmed that the company is responsible for exacerbating water crises, and recommended the shutdown of one of its bottling plants. Coca-Cola has not respected the rights of farmers, and has exploited the groundwater to such an extent in some areas that thousands of farmers have lost their livelihoods.

The Coca-Cola company did not even bother to share the environmental impact assessments (that it should have conducted prior to locating its bottling plants across India) for the study after repeated requests. Coca-Cola cited legal and confidential reasons for not sharing the reports.

The environmental impact assessments look at the various factors including water availability, existing stresses on water and potential impacts on the community. The fact is that the Coca-Cola company has located many of its bottling plants in India strictly from a business and profit motivated principle, and has given scant, if any, attention to the impacts on the community. Such a company cannot and must not be allowed to talk about new models of sustainability. Coca-Cola must walk the walk before it can talk the talk.

(The author is the director of India Resource Center, an international campaigning organisation based in San Francisco, USA)

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