Bottling livelihoods
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Aman Sethi  

Dropping ground water levels and gross soil pollution in Varanasi district, UttarPradesh, prompt a fresh crop of protest actions against Coca-Cola. For its part the corporation attempts to resolve the conflict by ‘educating’ its critics, and issuing tenuous claims against evidence of environmental degradation. In this article Aman Sethi uses investigative evidence procured by the Indian national magazine Frontline, to illustrate the nuances of the clash between Coca-Cola and the people most harmed by its presence.

SHIELDING herself from the fierce afternoon sun with a bright dupatta, Urmila lowers her bucket deep into the heart of the well. As she draws out bucket after bucket of water, Urmila talks about how the water level has never been this low. "The colour and quality of the water has deteriorated over the last few years," she says. "But we are lucky. A number of wells in our village [Mehdiganj in Varanasi district] have gone dry this year."

A kilometre down the road, Nandlal and a motley crew of volunteers from the Lok Samiti, a local people's group, continue an indefinite protest against the company they think is the main culprit. "Coca-Cola acquired a bottling plant in Mehdiganj in 1999," says Nandlal, the Lok Samiti coordinator. Since then, the huge amounts of ground water extracted by the plant have severely affected life in Mehdiganj and neighbouring villages.

Nandlal contends that the Coca-Cola plant's twin tubewells siphon off close to 2.5 million of litres of drinking water a day from the district's aquifer, resulting in a sharp fall in ground water levels, dry wells and hand-pumps, and the destruction of local agriculture. The company has also been charged with polluting fields and water bodies with toxic effluents, lowering farm yield, encroaching on government land, and intimidating local dissenters. Coca-Cola has denied all charges.

Over the past few years, the most strident protests in the village have been over the issue of water usage and pollution. Three successive failed monsoons have left groundwater as the principal source of irrigation and raised the stakes for control over this common resource. While public statements issued by Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited extol the community-driven, ecologically friendly virtues of its plant, farmers allege that the plant's deep tubewells have put ground water well beyond the reach of the villagers hand-pumps and borewells. "We barely have enough water to drink, let alone irrigate the fields," grumbles Kallu Pratap, a farmer in Mehdiganj. "And pollution from the plant has destroyed our fields."

In 2002-2003, construction work of a national highway blocked the plant's effluent discharge drain, flooding the nearby fields with waste-water and destroying hectares of standing crop. Farmers say that the effluent seeped into the soil, rendering it infertile. Coca-Cola is also accused of providing toxic sludge from their factory as "free fertiliser" for the regions' farmers, which activists say, has destroyed entire fields.

Coca-Cola, for its part has denied any knowledge of such incidents. During the course of its investigation, Frontlinewas unable to find any farmer who had actually used the sludge. However, following complaints about Coca-Cola bottling plants in Kerala and West Bengal, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) conducted a survey of 16 soft-drink bottling plants across the country of which the effluent sludge of eight Coca-Cola bottling plants was found to have unacceptably high levels of cadmium, lead and chromium. Mehdiganj was one of them. "Our study found that the solid waste of the Mehdiganj plant had a cadmium concentration between 9mg/kg and 86mg/kg, which is far in excess of the CPCB benchmark of 50mg/kg. Hence the sludge from the Mehdiganj plant must be categorised as hazardous industrial waste and must be treated as such," said P.M. Ansari, Additional Director, CPCB. "The sludge also contained 220-538mg/kg of lead and 62-134mg/kg of chromium, which are far in excess of the limits set by Municipal Solid Waste [Handling and Management] Rules of 2000 for metal concentrations in manureat 50mg/kg for chromium and 100mg/kg for lead." Ansari also explained that the high heavy metal concentrations posed a health risk if the sludge was not disposed of correctly. "The sludge must be stored in lined, concrete landfills specifically designed for this purpose," he said. At present Uttar Pradesh has no such landfills.

The company is also embroiled in a complicated land encroachment case with the local gram panchayat. While Coca-Cola claims to have worked out a land exchange pact with the panchayat, documents made available to Frontline indicate that in 2005, Nitishwar Kumar, the District Magistrate of Varanasi, was forced to remove the pradhan of Mehdiganj, RamJivan Patel, from his post on charges of corruption. The District Magistrate concluded that the pradhan had been compromised and had acted out of monetary self-interest when he had signed a statement acknowledging the receipt, without ever taking actual control of, the disputed land from Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola, in retaliation, has launched a massive drive to "educate" people on the benefits of the plant. Fliers, pamphlets and advertisements published in local newspapers describe Coca-Cola as a vikas ka saathi, or partner in progress, and detail the company's philanthropic efforts in the realms of health, community service and environmental protection. Coca-Cola is also suspected of launching a covert publicity campaign through organisations such as theSarv Daliya Kshetriya Vikas Morcha that directly question Nandlal's claims and offer counterclaims of their own. The company refers to itself as an "integral part of the social fabric of Mehdiganj", and states that it is taking all possible measures to minimise water consumption, including recycling significant amounts of water, and treating all their effluents as per government standards.

The company has also indicated it draws about 500, 000 litres of water a day - about a fifth of Nandlal's figure. Figures made available to Frontline by the Uttar Pradesh wing of the CPCBare similar to the figures released by the company. Coca-Cola has also released ground water data, verified by Sheo Shanker Singh, a senior hydrologist for Varanasi Division's Ground Water Department, illustrating that the water table in the area has remained more or less stable over the past decade. At the Arazi line (where the plant is located), the water level has actually risen from 8.76metres below ground level to 6.10 metres below ground level. Sheo Shanker Singh could not be contacted by Frontline to account for this increase in water levels at a time of drought. Six years into the struggle, the battle lines are clearly drawn. With both sides deeply entrenched in positions of mutual distrust, all information seems coloured by its sources. While, in some instances the claims of activists appear exaggerated, Coca-Cola's assertion that the water table has actually risen appears suspect. If press reports are to be believed, 2006 could be one of Varanasi district's driest years. An April 2 report in Hindustan suggests that intense drinking water shortage in the villages has prompted the district administration to order the digging of 119 new ponds and reservoirs to complement the 97ponds dug last year. The report concludes by stating that sections within the district administration are pushing for tanker supply of freshwater to the villages. "There is no question that the water table is falling," says Ganapati Misra, Executive Engineer, Varanasi Jal Nigam. While refusing to comment on the bottling plant, Misra confirmed that pumps and wells in the district had gone dry, and that the administration was considering "all possible options for increasing fresh water supplies." .However, even if water levels across the district have fallen, it is difficult to attribute all water scarcity to the bottling plant in Mehdiganj. Over the last few years the Mehdiganj issue has found its way from dusty Varanasi to shareholder meetings in Coca-Cola's headquarters in the United States.

One issue remains buried under the accusations and counter-accusations: despite using Mehdiganj's ground water as the principal ingredient for its products, Coca-Cola, like other soft-drink companies, pays nothing apart from a marginal water cess on the raw material. Despite drawing nearly 13million litres of water in 2003, the bottling plant paid a water cess ranging from three to 30 paise a thousand litres depending on usage. The product, by contrast, was sold atRs.10 per 300 ml. It is disparities such as these that fuel people's movements - disparities that need to be addressed before all common property resources are left at the mercy of market forces.

First published in Ghadar []