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The People vs. Coca-Cola

Indian communities reclaim their water rights from the thirsty American soda giant.

By Amit Srivastava, Director of AJWS grantee Global Resistance

T he average Indian consumed about 2 liters of Coca-Cola in 2009. Compare that to roughly 95 liters consumed by the average American. Yet the American beverage conglomerate is causing severe hardship for the tens of thousands of people who live around its bottling plants in India.

Coca-Cola has located many of its plants in water stressed areas—guzzling water from the depleting groundwater table even as farmers and the community do not have adequate water to successfully farm their lands and meet basic needs. “Drinking Coca-Cola is like drinking the blood of farmers in India,” said Nandlal Master in Mehdiganj, the leader of a local group opposed to Coca-Cola’s operations.

Coke’s abuses in India are well documented.1 A study conducted by one of India’s most well-known NGOs, the Energy and Resources Institute, concluded that Coca-Cola was a significant contributor to the growing water shortages in the village of Kala Dera in the state of Rajasthan—a desert area where the company began bottling in 2000. The study recommended that Coca-Cola shut down or relocate its plant because 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.”

In the village of Mehdiganj, in north India, groundwater levels have dropped 7.9 meters (26 feet) in the 11 years since Coca-Cola started its bottling operations. The community’s water shortages are most acute during the summer, when Coke’s production is at its peak, and many have called for the company to cease bottling during the dry season.

Communities Defend their Rights

In response to their unwelcome new neighbor, Indians are fighting back. Community after community has organized to demand that Coca-Cola close up shop because it is significantly hindering access to water, a fundamental human right.

In southern India, in the village of Plachimada in the state of Kerala, one of Coke’s largest bottling plants has been closed since 2004 after the community’s opposition led to state government orders to halt operations. The government subsequently convened a committee to study the impacts of Coca-Cola’s plant in Plachimada, and in 2010, concluded that the company was responsible for at least $47 million in damages to the local population. In February this year, in an unprecedented move, the state legislature of Kerala passed a law setting up a tribunal which would allow local people to seek compensation from the company.

My organization, Global Resistance, has worked closely with the community-led campaigns through a local initiative called the India Resource Center. The center has helped organize the various arms of the movement in India, and Global Resistance has provided local groups with access to the international stage, enabling Indian voices to be heard on Coca-Cola’s home turf and in the company’s other large markets, such as the European Union. We have placed prominent articles in the mainstream Indian and international media and countered the company’s denials with documentation and research.

Feeling the Heat

The campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable for its abuse of water resources in India has significantly impacted the company. The Wall Street Journal credited the campaign with costing Coke “millions of dollars in lost sales and legal fees in India, and growing damage to its reputation elsewhere.”2

Coke now takes water matters much more seriously and has become more efficient in its water use around the world. In 2000, it took more than 7 liters of water to make 1 liter of soda. Today, as a result of the campaign, the company claims to have reduced its use to about 3.7 liters. Coca-Cola has also developed global guidelines to determine where new bottling plants should be located.

Though these improvements are real, the company has also made grandiose, fictitious claims. In a reactionary move to the campaign, Coca-Cola now claims to be a global leader in water conservation and has announced that it has become “water neutral” in India—even as many communities continue to feel the devastating effects of its ongoing appropriation of their country’s water.

Coke also employs dirty tactics in countering the claims made against it. A startling New York Times article noted that Coca-Cola’s “lobbying approach (in India) was to ensure, among other things, that every government or private study accusing the company of environmental harm was challenged by another study.”3

Combating Coke’s public relations “greenwashing” and its attempts to cover its abuse of natural resources with bogus scientific studies has become the most recent challenge facing the organizers of the campaign. Coca-Cola’s shenanigans have compelled Global Resistance to work much more closely with experts and scientists to scrutinize the company’s fantastical claims, and to work with the media and allies to publicly counter them.

Taking Responsibility for Global Repercussions

AJWS has supported Global Resistance and its India Resource Center initiative since 2009


The organization works to empower small-scale farmers to hold the Coca-Cola company accountable for the degradation of water sources in drought-affected regions of India.

As the economic axis of the world shifts towards Asia, the new battlegrounds over unaccountable corporate power are also shifting, as the case of Coca-Cola’s water abuse in India illustrates. U.S.- and EU-based companies, generally speaking, are quite dismissive of concerns raised by communities in the Global South, and they take advantage of the weakened regulatory enforcement in these countries. However, bringing communities’ concerns to the corporations’ home countries, where they are relatively more susceptible to public pressure and to laws that protect human rights, significantly amplifies our voices and strengthens our campaigns.

Indeed, as corporate investment in emerging economies and the developing South increases, often infringing on the rights of local people, more and more communities are resisting attempts to usurp their rights. It is more important than ever that we lend support to these grassroots efforts to counter unrestricted corporate power. And especially when the company being challenged is American, it is imperative that social movements and activists in the U.S. work with their counterparts in the developing world to take the company to task.



Footnotes

  1. The Energy and Resources Institute, "Executive summary of the study on independent third party assessment of Coca-Cola facilities in India," January 2008, page 22: http://www.teriin.org/upfiles/projects/Coca-cola-ES.pdf
  2. Steve Stecklow, "How a Global Web of Activists Gives Coke Problems in India," The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2005.
  3. Anand Giridharadas, "India's new lobbyists use American methods," The New York Times, May 18, 2006: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/18/business/worldbusiness/18iht-lobby.1778893.html?pagewanted=2


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American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

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