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26 September 2002 Edition

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Coca-Cola: Soft Drinks can be hard on Human Rights

Coca-Cola is another in the myriad of multinational companies that stand accused of human rights abuses. SOLEDAD GALIANA reports on the issues behind current demonstrations against the company in India, and its human rights record elsewhere.

A Coca-Cola subsidiary in India is being charged with pollution on a grand scale of an area surrounding its plant in Plachimada, adding to the multinational's questionable record on human rights worldwide.

The company stands accused of excessive extraction of groundwater, contamination of groundwater and parching of the wells and groundwater sources supplying a large community of farmers, adivasis (indigenous people) and dalits (oppressed castes).

On 4 August, the Coca Cola Virudha Samara Samithy (Anti Coca-Cola Struggle Committee) organized a mass rally and public meeting at Plachimada. A spirited march proceeded to the Coca-Cola plant, accompanied by many from the surrounding communities, as well as a substantial accompaniment police. Speakers discussed the ongoing theft by Coca-Cola of water throughout the region, poor labour conditions inside the plant, and the complicity of Indian political parties in abetting multi-national corporations.

In May 2002, several employees of Coca-Cola in Texas accused the company of repackaging nearly out-of-date soda cans and bottles and reselling them in stores frequented by primarily Latino and African American people
The ongoing struggle against this plant in the state of Kerala was launched on 22 April 2001, with a symbolic blockade and an ongoing continuous picketing by women and children belonging to the Eravalar and Malasar communities. About 300 people have been arrested. The campaign included blockades of the plant, lawsuits both against and on behalf of the protestors, destruction of advertisements, and numerous rallies and marches.

The Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd established this unit in 1998-99 in a 40 acre plot (previously multi-cropped paddy lands) providing meagre employment to some 300 locals as casual labourers in the plant and subsequently denying them labour rights. From the beginning, the arrival of Coca-Cola was marked by frictions. M. Swaminathan, a tribal leader from Velloor, one of the tribal villages affected by Coke's activities, says that the Coca-Cola plant is illegal, because the company did not obtain clearance for putting agricultural land to non-agricultural uses - as it is required by the Kerala state's Land Utilisation Act.

The company sunk more than 60 bore-wells (besides 2 open wells) on the premises, which is adjacent to a major irrigation canal, and several kilometres from numerous reservoirs and the Chitturpuzha River. Water in the area has both become depleted and polluted.

Most of the pollution is the consequence of bottle washing, which involves the use of chemicals, and the sludge from the plant from those products brought back to the factory after they have expired.

At first, the company sold the foul smelling dry sedimented slurry waste to unsuspecting farmers as fertiliser. Later, in its "generosity", the company decided to give it "free". And now, due to the protests and objections of the locals - who already know of the great environmental damage caused to the water table by this waste - the slurry is surreptitiously dumped on the way side and on lands at night, even going beyond the state boundary.

The ground water and hence water from the open wells has rapidly depleted in this perennially rich paddy growing belt (paddy is abandoned now with the mostly landless Adivasis loosing their jobs also). The water turns turbid or milky on boiling and is unfit for drinking, bathing and washing clothes etc.

Already over 1000 families have been affected in the surrounding villages within a radius of 5 kms, of which a quarter are Adivasis and the rest Dalits - the most marginalised of the Indian castes - and other non-Adivasis. The villages severely affected are the 'colonies' of Adivasis and Dalits such as Plachimada, Vijayanagaram, Veloor and Madhavan Nair colonies in the Perumatty Panchayat and the Rajeev Nagar, and Thodichipathy colonies in the Pattanamchery Panchayat facing acute water shortage and contaminated water.

Dr. Mark Chernaik, a staff scientist with Oregon-based E-LAW US - a network of public interest environmental lawyers - writes: "Water from the village well and the farmer's well would be classified as 'very hard.' Use of this water for bathing and washing would cause severe nuisance and hardship. Water from the [village] well and, to a lesser extent, water from the farmer's well would have an objectionable taste because of the high levels of calcium and magnesium. Excessive calcium and magnesium in groundwater usually is the result of the dissolution of limestone that is associated with the groundwater deposit. Therefore, this water quality analysis supports the following hypothesis...[that] rapid extraction of water from the aquifer (after the arrival of the Coca Cola bottling plant) would increase the rate at which water is flowing through the limestone or clay. Faster flowing water would break apart some of the limestone or clay, resulting in the addition of limestone or clay particles to the water supply."

The Coca-Cola Virudha Samara Samithy demands are the immediate closure of the Coca-Cola Factory. They are asking for Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd be held fully responsible and liable for the destruction of livelihood resources of the people and the environment. The campaign wants the state to initiate criminal action against Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd and the company to be made accountable for the ecocide, with responsibility to restore the environment. They also want compensation for all those adversely affected by the Coca-Cola Unit, the withdrawal of the false cases filed against the protesters and their supporters, and finally the total withdrawal of Coca-Cola factories from India.

Community complaints about Coke's exploitation of common groundwater resources are not peculiar to Plachimada. Neither does its track record in India and elsewhere corroberate its claims of "responsible corporate citizenship".


* Capt. J. Rama Rao of Hyderabad-based NGO Samriti writes about Sri Sarvaraya Sugars, a bottling unit dedicated to producing Coke's Kinley brand of water located in the Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh. The factory draws 225,000 litres of water per day. "As a result, the borewells in certain areas of Sattupalli village, having a population of 25,000 are reported to have dried up," writes Rao. A Coke spokesperson dismissed these allegations as politically motivated.

* M.V.R. Mineral Water and S.R. Minerals, both of whom are contract bottlers for Coke's Kinley brand of water, have also been accused of depleting the groundwater in Athur village, 40 kilometers northwest of Chennai. M.V.R. Mineral Water reportedly extracts 132,000 liters of water each day. "The bottling units have sunk very deep borewells and are sucking out so much water that farmers are suffering," says A.V. Chandra, a local activist with Redhills-based NGO Womens' Collective.

* In 1999, the Goa Pollution Control Board issued a notice to the multinational for operating its new factory without securing official consent. The company functioned for more than 40 days without the prescribed effluent treatment systems.

* Reporting for the Guerrilla News Network on February 12, 2002, David Bacon in his article "The Coca Cola killings" writes: "Plan Colombia, America's $1.3 billion aid package to the Colombian government, is supposed to be about ending that country's civil war, but that money may be helping fund death squads that brutally oppress, even kill, everyday working Colombians. . .Multinational corporations like Coca-Cola have been implicated in the death squads' dirty deeds." A death squad assassinated a Coca-Cola union leader outside the company's factory gates in Carepa, Colombia. The largest Coca Cola union in Colombia has asked for an international campaign against Coke to stop the violence against workers, which has included half-dozen murders at one plant alone in the mid-1990's.

* In May 2002, several employees of Coca-Cola in Texas accused the company of repackaging nearly out-of-date soda cans and bottles and reselling them in stores frequented by primarily Latino and African American people.

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