A taste of life as it should be? Coca-Colas framferd i India

Andrew Preston

V&K: Can you give us an idea of the latest developments in the campaign against Coca- Cola in India?

Srivastava: Now we are at a very strong point – perhaps the strongest point right now in terms of the campaign in India. I say this because there have been some very significant actions taken recently by government agencies in India. In fact, last Friday, the state government of Kerala – this is the site of one of Coca-Cola’s largest bottling plants, the one that was shut down by the community and the government in March 2004 – has announced its intentions to file criminal charges against the Coca-Cola company for the pollution that it has caused in the area. This was one of the demands that we had been making of the government, and we think that this is a very positive step. It’s not enough to shut down the plant, which was highly unsustainable and destroying people’s lives and livelihoods, but we must make sure that these companies, such as Coca-Cola, are held criminally liable and culpable for the damages that they have caused. So this is a very significant step. The trend that we are seeing in India is very encouraging. Finally, various government agencies are beginning, slowly but steadily, to side with the committees that have been campaigning against Coca-Cola. Of course this validates the concerns that the communities have been raising, not only in Kerala, but in different parts of India.

V&K: Kerala is the best known example, but where else are bottling plants causing problems for local communities?

Srivastava: Well, you know, we have five significantly active communities across India experiencing the same things – this pattern that has emerged as a result of Coca-Cola’s operations. One is that ever since Coca-Cola started their operations the people who live around their factories suddenly find it much more difficult to access water for their basic needs – for cooking, bathing and cleaning. Coca-Cola has put itself in direct competition for the same resource – the groundwater that the community depends on. Unfortunately, what has happened, and we think that this is highly irresponsible, is that the Coca-Cola company has located many of its sites in India in what even the government has classified as drought prone areas – essentially water stressed areas. We just fail to understand why a company like the Coca-Cola company, whose primary raw material is water – large amounts of water – would site their factories in these places.

V&K: So Coke is exacerbating existing water problems…

Srivastava: What we are seeing is exactly that. There are communities across India who are already experiencing water crisis situations and water shortages, finding it rather difficult to access the water, and here comes the Coca-Cola company and sets up shop in the same area. For us, the primary issue is not so much how much water Coca-Cola takes from the ground, but how much Coca-Cola further exacerbates or worsens the already existing water shortages. The majority of Coca-Cola’s bottling plants are located in rural areas, which means around farms because over 70% of India is still making a living related to agriculture. So not only do they impact people’s daily water needs, but also the water intake and water needs of farmers. This practice of Coca-Cola coming to drought prone areas and taking lots of water has directly resulted in the loss of livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers. The gravity of the situation is much more significant because it is India, given the way that we are set up.

The other big issue, which many people don’t talk about, is the issue of pollution. This company has indiscriminately polluted both with wastewater as well as solid waste around these bottling plants. We find it criminal, in fact, how the Coca-Cola company uses water. If you go to the web site, they’re big champions. They say “our water use ratio is 4:1…it used to be 9:1”. What they’re saying is that for every four litres of fresh water they take from the ground, they make 1 litre of product. What happens to the other 3 liters? This is not something they talk about. What happens is that they use it for cleaning bottles and machines. They effectively convert 75%, according to their own admission, of the fresh water they take in India into wastewater. We think that this is a crime, particularly given how people in India already are struggling to meet their basic water needs on a daily basis.

V&K: Should Coca-Cola move to water-rich areas of India or just quit India altogether?

Srivastava: Well, you know, a little bit of both. I just don’t think having 52 bottling plants in India is a very sustainable thing. They must also abide by the rules and regulations of the government of India, which they completely do not. They act with impunity in India. They have broken just about every law to do with what we call industrial hazardous waste in India. To top it off, the water that the Coca-Cola company takes in India, in some cases up to 1 million litres a day, is free. It’s all free. This is the other part of the campaign. Our target is not only the Coca-Cola company, but also the government of India, to ensure that there are adequate and strong measures to protect the natural resources for the people so that private companies, like Coca-Cola, cannot just come in and expropriate public natural resources and then sell them for a profit back to the Indian public. We think this is highly criminal. Without paying a penny for the water that they extract from the ground, we think this is absolutely foolish.

At the same time, the government of India needs to look at what is essential. Do we need Coca-Cola for India’s development? This is a fundamental question that India needs to answer. Yes, we need jobs, of course we need jobs, but how much does this contribute to the public good in India? We don’t think it does very much because, if you look at the public health impact of consuming Coca-Cola, it is actually quite disastrous. We have seen this in industrialized countries like the United States and the United Kingdom where the sales of Coca-Cola are actually going down because people are figuring out that they don’t want this high sugar, high carbonated, high acidic drink in their bodies or their children’s bodies.

V&K: In April, the director of UN-Habitat signed an agreement with Coca-Cola India to improve access to water and sanitation in local communities in India and Nepal. What do you think about this type of cooperation agreement?

Srivastava: You know, we are starting to see more and more of this and I think this is the direct result of the growing campaign in India and internationally against Coca-Cola. Unfortunately, these kinds of measures amount to nothing more than what we classify as “greenwashing” efforts. These are just attempts by a company to paint an image of itself as if they value water intrinsically, but in reality they have a very destructive relationship with water. It’s very difficult to speak out against any initiative that is supposedly there to conserve water because we need to conserve. There is no argument about that. When it’s a company like Coca-Cola which uses a lot of water – in 2004, for example, this company used 283 billion litres of water – you have to scrutinize these kinds of announcements to see what they really mean.

How can a company, whose job it is to convert 75% of the water it extracts from the ground into wastewater, have the audacity to talk about conserving water? Perhaps, the first thing they ought to start talking about is stopping this kind of production process, if they really want to be serious about conserving water. We think these are just attempts to deflect attention away from the real issues in places like India, where Coca-Cola is under a very strong attack for its track record on water. They have made some grand, ambitious announcements, and we will be watching them to see if they can actually achieve it. We doubt it, but one of the announcements that they have made in India is that they will replenish all of the water that they use. The Coca-Cola company suggests that rainwater harvesting is the solution to all the criticism that they are facing in India. Scientifically it is not so simple. You cannot take 5 litres of groundwater and harvest 5 litres from the rain and expect that the groundwater is immediately recharged. Actually, it is not. In fact, it takes decades, if not centuries, for rainwater to actually recharge groundwater resources. What Coca-Cola is trying to suggest is wrong, and they are trying to mislead the public about it. We tell them that if they have so much confidence in the harvesting of rainwater, then perhaps they should just collect rainwater and use that to make their product!

Vann og Konflikter, Oktober 2007