Indian Farmers, Coca-Cola Vie for Scarce Water Supply
The video can be seen at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/video/module.html?mod=0&pkg=17112008&seg=4
In the Indian state of Rajasthan, farmers have accused Coca-Cola factories
of drawing too heavily on the area's water supplies and contributing
to pollution. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on the controversy and the
claims of both the company and its critics.
GWEN IFILL: Next, the battle between Coca-Cola and farmers over the
shrinking supply of available water in India. NewsHour special correspondent
Fred de Sam Lazaro has our report from the state of Rajasthan.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO, NewsHour Correspondent: This is one of 49 factories
that make Coca-Cola drinks across India. The company has invested
over $1 billion dollars building a market for its products in this
country, but Coca-Cola's welcome has been less than effervescent,
particularly around this factory in Kala Dera, in the arid and recently
drought-stricken state of Rajasthan.
The plant used about 900,000 liters of water last year, about a third
of it for the soft drinks, the rest to clean bottles and machinery.
It is drawn from wells at the plant but also from aquifers Coca-Cola
shares with neighboring farmers. The water is virtually free to all
These farmers say their problems began after the Coca-Cola factory
arrived in 1999.
RAMESHWAR PRASAD, Farmer (through translator): Before, the water level
was descending by about one foot per year. Now it's 10 feet every
year. We have a 3.5-horsepower motor. We cannot cope. They have a
RAM SAPAT, Farmer (through translator): Every day, a thousand vehicles
come out of that factory taking away our water. What is left for our
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: To irrigate their fields of barley, millet and
peanuts, these growers complain they must now drill deeper and use
heftier pumps to water their fields.
MANGAL CHAND YADAV, Farmer (through translator): I've had to drill
three times. It's down to 260 feet. Five years ago, it was 180 feet.
HARI MICHAN YOGI, Farmer (through translator): It's because everyone
has a submersible pump now, the Coca-Cola factory. There's not enough
rain. These are the reasons.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Their cause was picked up by activists, like Rajendra
Singh. He has worked across the region helping villagers conserve
and collect rainwater through traditional methods.
RAJENDRA SINGH, Water Activist (through translator): Exploitation,
pollution, encroachment, Coca-Cola is doing all three. That's why
I say that no company has the right to steal the common water resource.
No company has the right to pollute water that is our life. No company
has the right to encroach on our land that is our livelihood. Coca-Cola
is doing all three.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The farmers also got the attention of international
activists, according to Siddharth Varadarajan, an editor with the
newspaper The Hindu.
SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN, Newspaper Editor: Activist groups have been
quite effective and have managed to tap into anti-globalization and
environmental and green groups across the world and have, you know,
therefore, I think, managed to put Coke on the defensive internationally,
to a much greater extent than has happened within India.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In 2005, when the University of Michigan banned
Coke products, the company responded, and the ban was then lifted.
Coca-Cola agreed to an independent third-party assessment of some
of its operations in India. That report determined that this plant
in Rajasthan is contributing to a worsening water situation. It recommended
that the company bring water in from outside the area or shut the
factory down. Coca-Cola rejected that recommendation.
Already in 2004, Coca-Cola shut down one factory in south India amid
a similar controversy. Its response now doesn't surprise Varadarajan.
SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN: Clearly, if Coke were to give in one factory,
as other communities essentially look at the experience of Rajasthan,
it's quite likely that there would be a cascading effect. So I suspect
Coke will dig its heels in.
The company's viewpoint
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For his part, Coca-Cola's India head, Atul Singh,
says it would be irresponsible to leave.
ATUL SINGH, President, Coca-Cola India: You know, walking away is
the easiest thing we can do. That's not going to help that community
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So Coca-Cola, while insisting its impact on the
water supply was minimal, said it would stay and help.
The company has agreed to subsidize one-third of the cost of water-efficient
drip irrigation systems for 15 neighboring farmers. The government
pays most of the rest; growers themselves must chip in 10 percent.
Coca-Cola has also set up concrete collection systems for rainwater.
Typically about 70 percent of rainfall evaporates before it can seep
into the ground. Water collected from rooftops is piped into shafts
up to 150 feet deep. Despite drought conditions, the system has been
a success, according to company spokesman Kalyan Ranjan.
KALYAN RANJAN, Coca-Cola Spokesman: We have still managed to recharge
banks than what we withdraw, so what we see ourselves is we are part
of a problem-solving mechanism rather than a problem in ourselves.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Are you saying you're putting back more water
than you're taking?
KALYAN RANJAN: In Kala Dera, yes. In Kala Dera, yes.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The scientist who conducted the independent study
of Coca-Cola's operations is not ready to accept that claim. Dr. Leena
Srivastava is with the Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute.
LEENA SRIVASTAVA, Scientist: We haven't been able to prove that. And
it's too short a timeframe to start talking about whether groundwater
aquifers have been recharged in six months. I think we really have
to wait and watch and see what the impact is.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And farmers and activists, like Rajendra Singh,
RAJENDRA SINGH (through translator): They have an arrogance that says,
"We have money; we can buy what we want."
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: They also are critical of the government locally
for attracting Coca-Cola to a water-scarce region and nationally for
ignoring water policy in a rush to attract industry and foreign investment.
Editor Varadarajan says they have a point.
SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN: India has a completely irrational groundwater
management policy, where, if you have the means and the resources,
you can extract as much groundwater as you like and you can use this
water which you essentially pump up for free -- it's unmetered --
to manufacture products which you can sell for a high price, whether
it's bottled water, whether it's a beverage, whether it's industry.
And, you know, this is something which the Indian policymakers have
simply not bothered to formulate a cohesive strategy to deal with.
Food, water scarcity
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: At stake is the nation's food supply, says scientist
LEENA SRIVASTAVA: We are heading very rapidly towards the situation
of absolute scarcity. Without even adding on the problems that might
come up because of climate change issues, we just don't have enough.
And food security in the future can become a major problem for the
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Food security?
LEENA SRIVASTAVA: Food security, yes.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Based on the water scarcity?
LEENA SRIVASTAVA: Based on water scarcity.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In June, India's prime minister proposed a series
of measures to address broader climate change issues, including water.
As for Coca-Cola, CEO Singh says, by the end of 2009, the company
will become, quote, "water-neutral," returning at least as much groundwater
as it withdraws in India overall, though not necessarily at individual
plants like Kala Dera.
He says it's part of an emerging sense of corporate social responsibility.
ATUL SINGH: You know, I think the world has changed. If you'd asked
me this question 10, 15, 20 years ago, I would give you a different
Today, what I have seen -- and this is globally, as well as in India
-- corporates have moved from philanthropy -- you know, cutting a
check for the art, you know, some art museum or some religious temple
or, you know, helping a particular foundation -- into real sustainability.
Are we building sustainable communities? And if we are not, consumers
will choose products and services from companies who do behave in
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says Coca-Cola plans to invest several hundred
million more dollars in the years ahead in what may soon become its
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