About the Author

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay
Civil Engineer (Kolkata)

Pabitra is an Honors graduate in Civil Engineering from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He has specialized in the field of River Hydraulics working for more than two decades training rivers, protecting banks and beaches and fighting erosion of the river banks/beds. He has worked with Bio-Engineering models involving mangroves using them as tools for cost effective and natural means of anti-erosion technology.His work is mostly concerning the extremely morpho-dynamic Hugly estuary with Bay of Bengal In course of his work, he got exposed to indegenious people of the Sunderban wetlands, who are fighting a losing battle against agressive Industrialization. Pabitra loves to read and write and he is full of crazy ideas. He believes that he has a tryst with the strange river-country south of Bengal.

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Pirates of the Ground Water

Published 20th January 2011 - 8 comments - 4431 views -

Blue Water Series – Peoples’ Issues – Article 1

[Author’s note to Readers: I am trying to fashion my posts in a particular manner, which I wish to explain a little. I am attempting to see the current Global and Regional Water Issues in a structured order and under the current water paradigm of Virtual, Blue and Green Water. My first and introductory post (here) dealt with the background while the second and third posts dealt with the concepts of Virtual and Blue Water respectively under Management Category. I shall write about Green Water in my subsequent post too. But in the interim I am going to introduce issue based posts in three different series, namely Virtual, Blue and Green Water Series. This post is the first of the Blue Water Series. I always try to write from personal perspective, rather than a reporting style and in order to stay rooted to my perspective, the introductory and conceptual articles were considered necessary. Checking my earlier posts may help readers understand my points better as the posts are inter-related. Thanks]

Sorry, do not expect Captain Jack Sparrow, the immortal mascara yielding character created by Johnny Depp. Rather you can see Urmila Viswakarma in action in India, who is Erin Brockovich, Indian version. Urmila is a school teacher from Mehdiganj, Uttar Pradesh, a village 20 kilometers from the holy city of Varanasi by river Ganges and no different from thousands of such across India except for the fact that it has Coca-Cola, the soft drink giant setting it’s plant there and, to Coca-Cola’s misfortune, one fire brand and self taught water activist like Urmila.

Mehdiganj, Urmila’s native village has a 1000 strong population that traditionally used to produce Vanarsi variety of saree which became non-profitable as power loom made cotton and synthetic cheap sarees became popular. The local land being fertile, people took to agriculture and struggled to earn a livelihood. By 1999, Coca Cola took over a local Parle factory through its Indian Associate by the name Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited and set up bottling plant for Coca Cola soft drink. By 2004, Mehdiganj and a number of adjacent villages namely, Nagepur, Bhikaripur, Saidapar, Jamuni, Kallipur, Benipur and others (about twenty villages in all) saw drying up of ground, crop failure and alarming fall in the ground water table (25-50 feet in four years between 2000 and 2004) in the local wells. Urmila and local womenfolk, for whom, it is a customary task to collect daily drinking and washing water had to face progressive hardship and was forced to travel longer to get potable water.

Coca-Cola continues to draw out groundwater at an alarming rate for six months a year, when production is at full tilt. Bhagwan Das Yadav, who worked at the plant from its inception and was fired by Coca Cola for organizing the workers into a trade union, said they used to produce between 8,000-11,000 crates of Coca Cola in an 8-hour shift. Each crate had 24 bottles, of 300 ml, and six bottles to a crate if they were 1 liter bottles. Never, in the years he worked in the plant, were there less than 8,000 crates produced in 8 hours and even that happened only if there was a break-down in machinery. Usually it was more, and they received a small bonus if workers in a shift reached the target of 11,000 crates. Every day, 24 hours a day, with peak production between March and August, it is 7,20,000 bottles a day, roughly 2,00,000 liters of Coca-Cola. Or about 2 million liters of water a day, 360 million liters a year! All that water came free from huge submersible pumps running deep into ground and extracting water absolutely free, thanks to absurd Indian laws to prevent such outrage!

To add further injury, by 2004, Coca Cola plant began to discharge liquid effluent in the fields behind the plant, and affected about 20 acres. A small landowner who owns a bigha (two-thirds of an acre) of land just next to the boundary wall of the plant said that rice and wheat used to grow on his small plot of land, but now nothing grows there. A more prosperous farmer, Rajendra Pandey, who sold some of his land to the Coca-Cola plant, and who owns dozens of mango trees in a grove next to the plant, reported, "There have been no mangoes in the last four years. They dry up in the flowering stage itself, before they can bear fruit. Our family has lost thousands of rupees each year."

Urmila, our Erin Brockovich took it on herself to fight along with the gram panchayat (village council). An activist-agitative committee Gram Bahao Sangharsh Samity(GBSS)(Save Village Struggle Committee) was set up and an Indian David started a fight against a Multi-National Goliath. With the local Pollution Control Board, Ground Water Authority and Uttar Pradesh State Government swinging between the local vote-bank and a huge MNC’s persuasive power, the movement grew by leaps and bound networking with NGOs, political parties, other regions of the country suffering similar fate and overseas. In January 2004, at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, various representatives from Mehdiganj met with trade unionists from Colombia who are also struggling against Coca-Cola (see Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de Alimentos).

Not all these movements remained peaceful. In a rally against Coca Cola plant in Mehdiganj, Urmila was caned by police. She features in a short documentary titled “Always Coca Cola” by Inge Altemeir and Reinhard Hornung, which is quite interesting. See the Youtube video here.

Coca Cola is facing such mass resistance at least in two other places, making its plight in India to be featured in BBC.

In the state of Rajasthan, the High Court ruled in November 2004 that all soft drinks in the state must state the level of pesticides on the product label, in addition to the ingredients. This unprecedented ruling came only three weeks after a 2,000 strong demonstration to shut down the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Kala Dera, on the outskirts of Jaipur in Rajasthan. Over 50 villages are experiencing water shortages as a result of Coca-Cola's indiscriminate mining of water, and "struggle committees" have been formed in at least 32 villages to confront Coca-Cola's abuses. The Central Ground Water Board, a government agency, not only confirmed the declining water table as a result of Coca-Cola's indiscriminate mining of the water, it also faulted Coca-Cola for creating "ecological imbalances" in the area.

In response to the court order to state the level of pesticides on their labels, Coca-Cola appealed the decision on the grounds that such an action would force them to compromise with their "commercial confidentiality"! Coca-Cola also submitted to the court that small traces of DDT and other pesticides are not harmful "to the health of the consumers." The court rejected the appeal, and significantly, stated that "commercial interests are subservient to fundamental rights."

By far the most intense battle that led to a settlement in Indian Supreme Court is Plachimada case. The single largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in India, in Plachimada, Kerala, remains shut down since March 2004. Initially ordered to shut down until June 15 (for arrival of monsoon rains) by the state government to ease drought conditions, the Plachimada bottling plant has been unable to open because the local village council (panchayat) is REFUSING to reissue Coca-Cola a license to operate. The village council has maintained that the plant needs to shut down because it has destroyed the water system in the area as well as polluted the area.

The panchayat is an elected body at the most local level in India, and forms the building block of democracy in India - Panchayat Raj- a model promoted extensively by Mahatma Gandhi. Coca-Cola, in typical fashion, has chosen to undermine democracy by appealing to the courts that the panchayat has no jurisdiction over the plant and Coca-Cola, and that it should be the state of Kerala that makes the decision. Coca-Cola's efforts to undermine local governance is being followed closely as the court ruling in favor of the panchayat could set a significant precedence for local governance.

The struggle in Plachimada is the oldest struggle against Coca-Cola in India and there has been a 24/7 vigil directly in front of the factory gates since April 22, 2002. The struggle in Plachimada has also enjoyed significant victories. In December 2003, the High court, in an extremely significant decision, ruled that Coca-Cola HAD to seek alternative sources of water and that it could extract only as much water from the common groundwater resource as a farmer owning 34 acres of land could. The justification being that the plant is located on 34 acres. Furthermore, the court held that the groundwater belonged to the people and the Government had no right to allow a private party to extract such a huge quantity of ground water which was "a property held by it in trust''.

In another significant action in August, 2004, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (PCB), acting upon a Supreme court order, directed the Coca-Cola company to ensure that water supply through pipeline is delivered to the houses of all the affected communities in the vicinity.

While the various court and government agencies are validating and acting upon the community concerns, Coca-Cola is busy putting more money into a public relations strategy designed to convince everyone that they have nothing to do with the water scarcity and pollution in Plachimada and in India.

I wanted to see this as a battle between public outrage and an honest business enterprise. Unfortunately, Coca Cola’s track records are murky. The Coca-Cola Company and its products have been criticized by various sources for various reasons including negative health effects resulting from consumption of its products, exploitative labor practices, high levels of pesticides in its products, building plants in Nazi Germany which employed slave labor, environmental destruction, monopolistic business practices, hiring paramilitary units to murder trade union leaders, and marketing unhealthy products to children. See media reports here. India seems to be another feather in Coca Cola’s cap. The company started its business in India in 1956 operating as a 100% foreign equity beginning with a $20,000 investment and minted money while aggressively ousting competitors namely Parle India. In January 1974 when Indira Gandhi was in power, the Foreign Exchange Act was implemented, stating that foreign companies selling consumer goods must invest forty percent of its equity stake in India and in its Indian associates. Coca Cola agreed with investing forty percent foreign equity but stated that they would still hold full power in technical and administrative units with no local participation allowed. This demand was against the Foreign Exchange act for though it would give ownership of forty percent of Coca Cola’s Indian operations to Indian investors, these investors would have no vote or say in how any operations were handled. The government instructed Coca Cola to either write up a new plan or to leave the country. Coca Cola left India in 1977.

Coke had 100 percent equity in India. Their investment was not much. They came into the country with 600,000 rupees, which at the present rate of exchange is less than $20,000. On this 600,000 rupee investment, they had taken out of the country, by a modest estimate, 250 million rupees (about $8 million) as profit in the twenty years they had been in the country.

-George Fernandez, Indian Trade Unionist and Erstwhile Minister of Defense, Government of India

In 1993 Coca Cola re-entered after government approval, due to the new liberalization policies that were coming about in the economy in India. By 1999, Mehdiganj, Kaladera and Plachimada happened.

I would call Coca Cola nothing short of Ground Water Pirate. The company has a benign face and they are surviving in India on account of feeble environmental laws and incompetent Government policy-makers, or else no-body would seriously fall for their empty PR spin-offs to douse public out-rage. A review of the case profile of the class action law suit of Plachimada Village Council Vs. Coca Cola shows clearly up till now that the common trusteeship aspect of the ground water as not belonging to any private individual or company has been overlooked and a private owner’s right to extract water without limitation from within his/her property limits has been upheld. While this is a moot legal point, the modern environmental principles and recognition of everyone’s access to water source as a fundamental human right makes Coca Cola’s limitless extraction of ground water causing harm to local population, in my opinion, almost criminal. For further reading see here.

Interested readers can check the legal implications of Plachmada lawsuit and an analysis of Mehdiganj Affair here and here respectively.

[Image credit: India Resource Center]

[Featured Image credit: Roberta Morrone]


Category: Human Rights | Tags:


Comments

  • Andrea Arzaba on 20th January 2011:

    Dear Pabitra! I am very happy to read you again! And I love the “Erin Brockovich, Indian version” nickname.

    First of all (and before talking about our principal issue) i would like to make the observation that this happens in Mexico too, when traditional clothing become non-profitable because of other cheap material, and it feels me with sadness! It is not fair…

    Okay, back to the subject. I very much agree and see your point…this people in rural areas have to walk kilometers to get only water they can carry, while soda’s are sold even in the tinniest stores! How is that possible? And even sometimes it is cheaper to buy a soda than a bottle of water (and now we know how unfair bottle water prices are!)

    In this case Coca Cola, thank you for informing us about this issue.


  • Diêgo Lôbo Goiabeira on 22nd January 2011:

    Very nice reporting, Pabitra, thank you for sharing this prosperous action. It is interesting and always encouraging to know the people is struggling against the injustice of big companies like Coca Cola.


  • Andrea Arzaba on 22nd January 2011:

    @ Giedre : I agree with ur comment! Sad that is the reality here, even in small towns! And happy to see you here dear!


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