Farmers Vs Coca-Cola in Water Wars
By Ranjit Devraj
October 1, 2009

NEW DELHI, Oct 1 (IPS) - As India faces its worst drought in four decades, a dispute over water resources between farmers in the Kala Dera area of western Rajasthan state and a Coca-Cola bottling plant located there has sharpened.

Farmers and activists in Kala Dera who have been campaigning for the closure of the bottling plant operated by the global beverages icon said that if they do not succeed in closing down the Coca-Cola plant in this drought-hit year, they probably never will.

Kala Dera is located 40 kilometres outside Jaipur, the capital of arid Rajasthan state, one of the main attractions of which is the Thar Desert, considered the world’s seventh largest desert and Asia's third.

"The people who run the Coca-Cola plant are enormously influential and have the backing of politicians from both the [ruling] Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party [main opposition]," said activist and farmer Rameshwar Prasad Kudi in a phone interview with IPS from Kala Dera. "But we have the people on our side and we will continue to press for the closure of the plant."

Kudi, who is a member of the Kala Dera Sangharsh Samiti, a local group that has been demanding closure of the plant, said it was bad enough that various rules and norms were violated to allow the plant to be set up in a water-stressed area. Worse, it was "positively obscene" that it was functioning as usual in the middle of a severe drought.

According to estimates released by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) last week, the droughts this year could prove to be the worst since 1972 as a result of a deficient monsoon — the June to September rainy season that supports 60 percent of Indian agriculture.

IMD predicted that the droughts are likely to have the worst impact on the north-western region, where Rajasthan falls and where monsoon rainfall deficiency averages 34 percent.

Truant monsoon rains in the early part of the season have already taken a toll on India’s annual rice output as well as important cash crops like sugarcane and groundnut. Water levels in the country’s main reservoirs stand depleted, threatening irrigation for the post-monsoon, winter farming season or ‘kharif’.

Experts have blamed water shortage ­ a situation afflicting many other parts of the world today — on climate change. Severe flooding, droughts and storms are other ill effects of this environmental phenomenon.

Kudi said depleted water tables in Kala Dera meant that he and other farmers could not rely on groundwater to save their ‘kharif’ crops. He accused the Coca-Cola plant of lowering the water table in the area through water mining operations — charges that the bottler denies.

"We use less than one percent of Kala Dera’s available water, and we are continuously focusing on reducing and recycling the water used for our bottling operations," said Kamlesh Sharma, Coca-Cola senior manager for public affairs and communications.

Sharma said his company has launched initiatives to replenish groundwater through recharge projects within and outside its 56 plants across India.

"In Kala Dera, we have created the potential to recharge 15 times more water into the ground than we use in our plant. Even with less than normal rainfall, these structures can recharge substantially more water than is drawn for our bottling operations.’’

Asked why Coca-Cola had chosen to set up the plant in a known drought-prone area, Sharma said the company had simply responded to a government plan to transform Kala Dera from a backward rural area dependent solely on agriculture into a modern, industrial hub.

"We believe that we can be a net positive contributor to water in Kala Dera," said Sharma, citing Rajasthan state government data showing that the average annual decline over the past 10 years was less in Kala Dera than in the surrounding areas.

The government data showed water table decline of 1.83 metres in Kala Dera compared with those of other villages: 2.39 m in Chomu, 2.28 m in Jaipur and 2.43 m in Tigariya. Coca- Cola claims this is the result of "water stewardship’’ by a responsible company with "expertise in water management’’.

Sharma said it was completely unfair to blame Coca-Cola for water shortages in Kala Dera when agriculture was the single largest user of water resources in the area.

"The real issue is that conservation efforts must include steps to get farmers to use water efficiently. What is needed is a complete change in mindset among farmers so that they do not waste water through traditional irrigation methods, but be prepared to accept modern farming methods such as drip irrigation,’’ Sharma said.

Coca-Cola is prepared to help farmers make the transition. "Last year, we entered into a public-private partnership with the government agency Krishi Vigyan Kendra [an agricultural extension service] to help farmers install drip irrigation projects in Kala Dera to improve water and energy efficiency," Sharma said. "So far, we have installed 27 drip irrigation projects and we plan to set up 200 more in the next few months."

The drip irrigation method allows water to drip slowly to the roots of crops, thus minimising the use of water and fertilizer.

But the farmers have a different take on the issue. Mahesh Yogi, a farmer and campaigner who spoke with IPS, said that while Coca-Cola was giving out subsidies for drip irrigation, the scheme was costly and unsustainable, considering the equipment needed, which would also require maintenance.

"There are 25,000 farmers in Kala Dera, and it is just not possible to cover a significant number in a short period of time. What are we to do in the meantime? And who will take care of future maintenance?"

Yogi claimed that the beneficiaries of the drip irrigation schemes were a handful of better-off, influential people who supported Coca Cola’s activities. "They are following a divide-and-rule policy here,’’ he said.

Yogi said the simple fact was that the water situation has become so bad this year that even local industries, particularly those grouped under the Kala Dera Industrial Area Association, have joined the campaign to oust Coca-Cola.

Kudi and Yogi’s claims are backed by the report of an independent investigation carried out by the prestigious New Delhi- based The Environmental Research Institute (TERI), released last year.

TERI’s report said that Coca-Cola's operations in Kala Dera "would continue to be one of the contributors to a worsening water situation and a source of stress to the communities around".

The Institute’s key recommendations were that Coca-Cola relocate the plant to a water-abundant area or else transport water to the plant from an aquifer, which was not stressed for its needs, rather than resort to water mining.

TERI’s report was prompted by an international, student-led campaign in the United States, Canada and Britain involving 20 colleges and universities that called for the removal of Coca-Cola products from their campuses for creating water shortages and pollution in the areas where it operates in India.

Curiously, anti-Coca-Cola activists had initially opposed the choice of TERI as an "independent assessor’’ because it had worked with Coca-Cola in the past and had even named Coca-Cola one of the most responsible companies in India in 2001.

Yogi deems the TERI report redundant considering that the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) already considered Kala Dera as a water-deficient area and has been actively discouraging the use of bore wells there. In 2008, the CGWB declared Kala Dera "overexploited’’ for water. "We are also concerned about the future,’’ Yogi said.

"There was so little rainfall this monsoon that there is no way that Coca-Cola can recharge significant amounts of water through their water-harvesting structures for next year." Sharma said that asking for the Coca Cola to be relocated could prove counter-productive for the people of Kala Dera.

"We believe that we will be in a better position to serve the communities in Kala Dera by being present there rather than leaving."

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