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, 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
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.