THE Indian government forced Coca-Cola out of the country in 1977. The company’s return, in October 1993, coincided with the arrival of its arch-rival Pepsi. The United States multinationals now own 90 factories in India: Coca-Cola 52 and Pepsi 38. They describe these as bottling plants; actually they are pumping stations, each of which extracts up to 1.5m litres of water a day from the ground. It takes nine litres of clean water to manufacture a litre of Coke.
Women from near Plachimada begin their milelong trek in search of water in a region suffering from three years of scant rainfall. Mathruboomi Daily photo by Madhuraj
The processes used in manufacturing these soft drinks are inherently damaging. The extraction of groundwater deprives poor people of their fundamental right of access to clean water. The factories spew out toxic waste that threatens health and the environment. And the products themselves are harmful — the Indian parliament has set up a up a joint committee to inquire into the presence of pesticide residues.
In March 2000 Coca-Cola opened a plant at Plachimada, a village in the Palakkad district of the southern state of Kerala, intended to produce 1.2m bottles of Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite, Limca, Thums Up, Kinley Soda and Maaza every day. The conditional licence granted by the local panchayat (village council) authorised the use of motorised pumps, but the company drilled more than six wells and illegally installed high-powered electric pumps to extract millions of litres of pure water. The level of the water table fell from 45 to 150 metres below the surface.
Coca-Cola then polluted what little water it had not stolen from the community. It started by dumping waste outside its premises. During the rainy season, this spread into paddy fields, canals and wells, causing a serious health hazard. The company abandoned this practice and began pumping dirty water into dry boreholes that had been drilled on-site for the disposal of solid waste. This contaminated the aquifers.
As the water supply deteriorated, the local adivasi (1) women had to travel about 5km to fetch drinkable water. A journalist at the daily newspaper Mathrubhumi, Virender Kumar, pointed out that during the time this took them, soft drinks would come out of the plant by the truck-load (2). The women organised a dharna (sit-in) outside the factory gates to protest against the depletion of the groundwater.
Because of Coca-Cola’s activities, 260 wells — sunk by the authorities to supply drinking water and meet irrigation needs — have run dry. This part of Kerala is known as the rice bowl but agricultural yields have plummeted. Worse, Coca-Cola has been distributing the toxic waste from its factory to the villagers as free fertiliser. Analysis has shown that this sludge is rich in cadmium and lead, both carcinogenic.
Tribal and farming representatives have protested about the serious damage to harvests caused by contamination of aquifers and springs, and by indiscriminate drilling. They have particularly called for measures to protect traditional sources of drinking water, preserve ponds and water tanks, and maintain navigable waterways and canals.
When Coca-Cola refused to account for its practices, the panchayat withdrew its operating licence. It has been alleged that the company responded by offering the council’s president, Anil Krishnan, a 300m rupee bribe ($6.8m), which he refused. But the loss of the licence did not cost them the support of the state government, which awarded Coca-Cola a subsidy of 2m rupees under its regional industrial policy. Pepsi and Coca-Cola have secured similar grants in all the Indian states where they have set up factories, although their products have negligible nutritional value compared with traditional drinks such as nimbu pani, lassi, panna and sattu.
Nor does the damage inflicted upon the food chain and the economy stop here. To sweeten its products, the soft drinks industry increasingly uses maize syrup, high in fructose and damaging to health. Since maize is already used in the industrial manufacture of animal feed, this significantly reduces the amount available for human consumption, depriving the poor of a cheap, basic food. The substitution of maize-derived sweeteners for healthier equivalents derived from sugar cane (such as gur and khandsari) has an adverse effect upon farmers, whose subsistence depends on cane crops.
In 2003 the district medical officer advised the people of Plachimada that their water was so polluted that it was unfit for consumption. The adivasi women were the first to denounce Coca-Cola’s hydro-piracy with their sit-in. Their initiative sparked national and international expressions of solidarity. In February 2004, as the campaign gathered strength and with a drought worsening the water crisis, Kerala’s chief minister finally ordered the closure of the Coca-Cola plant. The entire Plachimada panchayat joined the rainbow alliance created by the women. Another panchayat, in Perumatty, filed a public-interest suit against the multinational in the Kerala high court.
In December 2003 Justice Balakrishnana Nair ordered Coca-Cola to cease illegal extraction of groundwater in Plachimada. The reasons for his judgment are as significant as the decision. He pointed out: “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 them a subject of private ownership. The said resources being a gift of nature, they should be made freely available to everyone, irrespective of their status in life. The doctrine enjoins upon the government to protect the resources for the enjoyment of the general public rather than to permit their use for private ownership or commercial purpose.
“Our legal system, based on English common law, includes the public-trust doctrine as part of its jurisprudence. The state is the trustee of all natural resources, which are by nature meant for public use and enjoyment. The public at large is the beneficiary of the seashore, running waters, air, forests and ecologically fragile lands. The state as a trustee is under a legal duty to protect natural resources. These resources meant for public use cannot be converted into private ownership.
“Water is a public good; and since the state and its various agencies are under an obligation to protect groundwater against excessive exploitation, their inaction constitutes a violation of the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian constitution.
“The Supreme Court of India has consistently maintained that the right to unpolluted air and water are an integral aspect of the right to life as defined by this article. So although there is no law specifically regulating the extraction of groundwater, the panchayat and the state are required to prevent any overexploitation of underground reserves. Coca-Cola’s property rights do not extend to the ground water below the land it owns. Nobody has the right to appropriate the lion’s share of this resource and the government has no power to licence a private third party to extract water in such vast quantities.”
Accordingly, the court gave Coca-Cola a month to cease water-extraction; and it ordered the panchayat and the state to ensure that this demand was met.
The women have been the heart and soul of the resistance and their initiative has been taken up by lawyers, parliamentarians, scientists and writers. The struggle has spread to other areas where Coca-Cola and Pepsi are pumping out aquifers. Following the opening in 1999 of a Coca-Cola plant at Kaladera, a village near Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan, the water table level below ground fell from 12 to 37.5 metres. The opening of a factory in the Mehdiganj district, 20km from the holy city of Varanasi (Benares), caused groundwater to sink by 12 metres and polluted surrounding fields. A Coca-Cola installation at Singhchancher, a village in the Ballia district of eastern Uttar Pradesh, has caused long-term pollution to water and land.
Everywhere, protesters are organising. But the public authorities’ usual response to demonstrations has been violence. At Jaipur, in October 2004, the well-known Gandhian activist Siddharaj Dodda was arrested for taking part in a peaceful march to demand the closure of the factory.
It is not only the drying-up of the wells; it is also the risk of contamination. When, despite evidence that their products contained pesticides that represent a danger to health (3), both companies refused to produce a list of ingredients, the Rajasthan high court banned the sale of drinks manufactured by Coke and Pepsi. The supreme court rejected an appeal and demanded disclosure of the exact contents of the products. So far, the drinks remain banned throughout the state.
A 1999 study by the All India Coordinated Research Project on pesticide residues showed that 60% of food products sold in the country were contaminated with pesticides and that 14% contained residues above permitted levels. Facts like these give the lie to the myth that multinationals are primarily concerned with safety and more trustworthy than the public sector. This prejudice against the public provision of goods and services has helped sell the idea of privatisation, which has undermined the supply of clean water at an affordable price.
On 20 January human chains formed around Coca-Cola and Pepsi factories across India. People’s tribunals gave the hydro-pirates notice to quit the country. The Plachimada case proves that people are more powerful than private companies.
Such pillaging of water resources could not happen without the complicity of centralising states. Campaigns have expanded to encompass dam projects and the grandiose plan to divert all the subcontinent’s rivers from their courses, which is increasingly opposed (4). Protesters have denounced the privatisations encouraged by the World Bank, specifically that of the Delhi water supply (5).
The struggle against the theft of water is not limited to India. Overexploitation of groundwater and major river diversion projects represent a significant threat to the world as a whole. Nature does not distribute water uniformly. If every part of the globe received equal rainfall, with the same frequency and pattern, the same vegetation would spring up everywhere, supporting the same animal species. Our world is built upon diversity; its hydrological cycle is a democratic system for the distribution of water to all living species. Without democratic access to water, there can be no democracy.