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INDIA: Coca Cola Accused of Guzzling Water in Desert State

Ranjit Devaraj

NEW DELHI, Jun 22 2004 (IPS) - Beverage giant Coca Cola’s cup of woe never runs dry in India. The company has picked up yet another row with local populations over groundwater mining, this time in the largely desert state of western Rajasthan.

For several months now villagers around Kaladera, an industrial area outside Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, have been demanding the closure of the Coca Cola plant there accusing it of using powerful bore wells to extract vast quantities of water from deep aquifers, depriving them of their share and disturbing the sensitive ecology of the area.

Led by prominent social organisations such as the Jan Sangharsh Samiti (People’s Agitation Forum), the Arya Samaj (a spiritual renewal society) and the Rajasthan Samagra Seva Sangh (a social service group), the villagers intensified their call for a shut down of the plant from the beginning of June.

Coca Cola set up its bottling plant in Kaladera to manufacture a variety of internationally known soft drink and mineral water brands because of supposedly abundant water resources in the area.

But three years of successive droughts have forced the company to reassess its production targets.

Farmers in the region, seriously stressed by the droughts and on the verge of complete ruination, have naturally been incensed by the sight of truckloads of bottled water and beverages rolling out of the factory.

Coca Cola, however, has consistently denied that it was excessively extracting water at Kaladera.

But villagers and the voluntary organisations demand that the plant be held accountable for its actions and are staging frequent noisy demonstrations in front of the factory gates.

In a bid to thwart the demonstrations, Coca Cola’s Vice- President Sunil Gupta said the company has been working with Rajasthan’s leading water rights activist Rajendra Singh to set up water harvesting projects in the state aimed at replenishing the groundwater.

But Singh, who heads the well-known voluntary organisation Tarun Bharat Sangh and won the Magsaysay award in 2001 for his water conservation efforts said he supported all efforts at rainwater harvesting but was against people buying bottled drinking water.

Singh told IPS that he has, in over two years of campaigning, collected close to four million pledges from people not to buy bottled water and thereby ”assert their natural right to water and not buy it as a commodity that can be expropriated by greedy multi-nationals.”

Furthermore, the results of a preliminary probe into the allegations against the Coca Cola unit at Kaladera conducted by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) seem to indicate that the company’s water-mining activities may in fact have contributed to a lowering of the water table to about 125 feet or 38.1 metres over the past decade.

This, according to CGWB, is causing most wells in the area to go dry.

According to estimates made by the CGWB, the plant was extracting water at an average rate of 20,000 cubic metres a month using powerful pumps that reached down into deep- water aquifers through large bore wells within its premises.

”The continuous extraction will lead to deterioration in the quality of ground water by disturbing the natural concentration of earthen salts at various levels in the aquifers,” a hydro-geologist at the CWGB was quoted as telling ‘The Hindu’ daily.

The scientist was not named by the paper in keeping with the water board’s briefing rules.

Coca Cola executives have offered no comment to the charges made by the CWGB scientist beyond saying that the company has been ”partnering the CGWA, local government and communities to help combat water scarcity and depleted groundwater tables.”

The CWGB probe at Kaladera was part of assessments being carried across the country by the Union Ministry of Water Resources following a landmark ruling by the Kerala High Court on Dec. 16, last year, ordering Coca Cola to stop mining water at its plant in Plachimada village in southern Kerala state.

At Plachimada, the Panchayat (local body) asserted its rights by withdrawing the license granted to Coca Cola to operate its bottling plant after local wells and aquifers ran dry. The Panchayat did this by filing a public interest litigation in the Kerala High Court.

The court responded by saying that while Coca Cola owned the land on which its bottling plant stood that, however, did not automatically confer on it the right to mine water – a public asset. It also found that the state government was duty-bound, as a public trustee, to protect natural resources.

Ruled the Kerala High Court: ”The Public Trust Doctrine primarily rests on the principle that certain resources like air, sea waters and the forests have such a great importance to the people as a whole that it would be wholly unjustified to make the a subject of private ownership which cannot be converted into private ownership.”

To the relief of the villagers of Plachimada and water rights campaigners everywhere Coca Cola has been forced to shut down its plant there.

Plachimada went on to become the venue of the Jan 21-22, World Water Conference an event which attracted the French radical farmer Jose Bove and the Canadian campaigner Maude Barlow to the remote Kerala village to express solidarity with the local people.

Water rights campaigners in India such as Afsar Jafri, of the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Environment, see a pattern in exploitative water extraction whether at Plachimada – located in the lush, rainy state of Kerala – or in Kaladera – which sits thousands of miles to the north on the edge of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert.

At both plants, the bottling units were extracting far more water than they were supposed to be doing and seemed to be able to gain the easy support of state governments eager for the investments and ready to compromise local interests and rights.

Jafri said most of the 90-odd bottling plants in India, owned either by Coca Cola or its main rival Pepsi, would have trouble if water laws were strictly and fairly implemented.

”Both the courts and Parliament have recognised that the trans-nationals are over-exploiting a public common good, he told IPS.

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