Coca-Cola's Green Makeover Not Enough
In a country where 70% of irrigation water and 80% of its domestic
water supplies come from its rapidly depleting groundwater reserves,
groundwater recharge is bound to get unstilted support (Water shortage
is the issue: ET, April 14). What if the recharge is funded by Coca-Cola
from out of the profit it nets by extracting groundwater in the first
place! That the company's expanding business eyes country's groundwater
reserves is pushed aside. Not without reason as everybody is brainwashed
by the corporate PR that passes for news these days, which makes everyone
think that the Coca-Cola groundwater recharge model is the greatest
invention to come down the pike since the wheel was invented.
It needs multiple voices and committed cheerleaders to hold aloft
the corporation's water stewardship credentials. That it's bottled
water brand Dancing was awarded with 'Consumer's International 2007
International Bad Product Awards' - filtering drinkable tap water
and selling it back to the market, particularly in Europe; that it
faces charges for human rights abuses of union members trying to organise
Coca-Cola plants in Colombia; and that two-thirds of freshwater used
by Coca-Cola is converted into wastewater globally are facts that
the company will see erased sooner from the public memory!
Co-opting unsuspecting civil society organisations to support corporation's
green makeover comes handy. Coca-Cola's long-term partnership with
the World-wide Fund for Nature; it's recent support of $1 million
to the Global Water Initiative, and its ongoing funding for more than
100 community water projects in 49 countries are designed to help
the company avoid addressing reasonable questions. In India, where
the privatisation of the state is nearly complete and where the idea
of capitalism is fast sinking into middle-class psyche, the propaganda
that a beverage company is recharging groundwater gets accepted without
No surprise, therefore, the groundwater withdrawal by Coca-Cola in
Plachimada in Kerala is not seen as gross violation of a communal
asset for meeting private interests. In similar tone, the soft water
company's groundwater withdrawal in Kaladhera in Jaipur is considered
insignificant when compared to irrigation withdrawals in the same
region. Need it be argued that while irrigation withdrawals are in
larger public interest, groundwater extraction helps the company accumulate
private wealth. Can appropriation of communal asset like water be
justified for generating corporate profits?
That the profit thus generated are channelised to demonstrate how
capitalism actually works if done right, and how if done right it
will save those people from underdevelopment and lives of hardship
and misery is at the core of Coca-Cola's community initiatives. Let
there be no doubt that while the intentions of the company may seem
pious on paper, its philanthropic motive is shrouded in corporate
mystery. Milton Friedman had rightfully said: "there is one and only
one social responsibility of business - to use its resources and engage
in activities designed to increase its profits."
Coca-Cola rightly argues that a successful business must be - in both
perception and reality - a functioning part of every community in
which it operates. No wonder, it supports no less than 320 community
water projects across 17 states and takes pride in generating 15 additional
jobs through supply and distribution for each job in the company.
It maintains that by creating jobs and enabling business it contributes
to alleviating poverty in the communities it serves. But that each
job makes water dearer to the communities and that it returns to them
in bottled form at exorbitant price is something the company will
like us to ignore.
Undoubtedly, there are myriad anomalies in managing public water distribution
systems that have resulted in severe water shortages across the country.
Allowing multinational corporations unrestricted access to groundwater
under the Indian Easement Act is one amongst them.
How indeed the country treats Coca-Cola and its clones will determine
how prepared it is towards addressing the issue of emerging water
poverty? A country that is dependent on groundwater for meeting its
growing public demand cannot allow private companies to siphon profit
out of its shrinking groundwater reserves in return of suspected favours
via a vulnerable civil society. Can a killer be pardoned because he
engages in simultaneous public service too?
(The author has served at the World Bank's Water & Sanitation Program
and currently heads the Delhi-based; The Ecological Foundation)
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