Arrogance and Impunity – Coca-Cola in India

By Amit Srivastava

How long will it take before the powers that be in India refuse to allow multinationals to treat Indians as guinea pigs?

In what can only be characterized as arrogance and impunity, we are learning that Coca-Cola and Pepsi have continued to sell soft drinks in India with dangerously high levels of pesticides – three years after even the government of India confirmed that these products were dangerous.

Perhaps the cola companies know something that we do not? Are Indians immune to high levels of pesticides? It is time for the cola companies to provide details of the studies they must have conducted to convince themselves that the average Indian can consume pesticides safely at levels 24 times the average American and European.

It is difficult to fathom the business logic of a company that boasts of having one global standard and yet, three years after being rapped on the knuckles by the Indian government, continues to sell products in India without making any improvements.

The existence of pesticides in soft drinks in India is a classic case of double standards, one for Americans and Europeans, and another for Indians. Coca-Cola products made in India could never be sold in the European Union markets or the United States. On at least 10 occasions since January 2005, the US Food and Drug Administration has rejected the shipment of Coca-Cola products made in India coming into the US, on the grounds that they do not conform to US laws and that they are unsafe for the US public.

The excuse given by both Coke and Pepsi – that they have met the (non-existent) norms for soft drinks in India – falls flat in its face, or at least speaks of continuing double-standards. In an age of globalization, surely standards – especially those pertaining to the health and safety of workers, consumers, and local communities – are also globalized? If a product is unsafe for Americans, it is also unsafe for Indians. It is indeed ironic that on the one hand, these very companies argue for global rules for trade and corporate investment, but when challenged for their misdeeds, try to invoke local and national laws.

The onus is upon the global companies to provide a product that is safe for consumers, period. It is the responsibility of Coca-Cola and Pepsi to clean out the contaminants from the raw materials before bringing it to market. Unfortunately, the cola companies’ transgressions run much deeper in India, both figuratively and literally.

In various parties of India, from Plachimada in south India to Mehdiganj in north India, communities living around Coca-Cola bottling plants are experiencing severe water shortages. The communities accuse the Coca-Cola company of creating water shortages because of over extraction of water and pollution of the scarce remaining water.

And the communities have the numbers to back them up. Tests conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board, for example, found excessive levels of lead and cadmium in all of the Coca-Cola waste it surveyed in bottling plants across the country, leading the CPCB to order the Coca-Cola company to treat its waste as hazardous waste. Prior to the CPCB study, the Coca-Cola company was distributing its toxic waste to farmers around its bottling plants, as fertilizer! Test results released just two weeks ago have confirmed that the water is also polluted, making it unfit for human consumption.

In Plachimada, Kerala, one of Coca-Cola’s largest bottling plants has been shut down since March 2004 because of the intense community opposition to the plant. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board has also issued a stop order notice to the company’s bottling plant because of the pollution by the plant.

In a highly irresponsible practice, the Coca-Cola company has located many of its bottling plants in India in “drought prone” areas, areas that were already experiencing severe water crisis. In Rajasthan, for example, a study by the Central Ground Water Board found that water tables had dropped 10 meters in just five years since Coca-Cola began its bottling operations in Kala Dera.

A formidable movement has emerged in India from these communities to challenge the Coca-Cola company for its indiscriminate exploitation of water resources and pollution.

As with the pesticide issue, the Coca-Cola company has challenged every study that has implicated it. The company also hired a high-priced lobbyist in New Delhi whose job, according to the International Herald Tribune, was to “ensure, among other things, that every government or private study accusing the company of environmental harm was challenged by another study.”

Arrogance? You bet. Impunity? No doubt.

And yet, this hubris is not being allowed to continue unchallenged. Communities in India impacted by Coca-Cola’s practices enjoy tremendous support internationally, and the global movement to hold the company accountable for its abuses in India is having a major impact. The prestigious University of Michigan, for example, has placed the Coca-Cola company on probation until it is able to convince the administration that it is taking steps to rectify its wrongdoings in India.

The Coca-Cola company has been forced to acknowledge the growing discontent around its operations in India, but it is doing too little, too late. It has, instead, revved up its public relations machinery, a far cry from what the communities are demanding.

The Indian state also owes its citizens some basic protection against the transgressions of multinationals such as Coke and Pepsi. As India grapples with setting standards for soft drinks to ensure consumer safety, it should also urgently act to protect communities across the country reeling from water shortages, courtesy Coca-Cola.

It may surprise many to know that Coca-Cola and Pepsi pay nothing for the water that they use in India, which runs in the hundreds of millions of liters every day. It is also a very wasteful industry, particularly when it comes to the valuable resource of water. It takes Coca-Cola nearly four liters of freshwater to produce one liter of product. In other words, the company converts seventy five percent of the freshwater it extracts into wastewater, which in turn has contaminated the scarce remaining groundwater and land.

The entire life-cycle of Coca-Cola – from the extraction of water to the delivery of the pesticide laden product- is wrought with problems.

In India, Coca-Cola uses the slogan in Hindi – Life ho toh aisi – Life should be like this.

We don’t think so.

For more information, visit www.IndiaResource.org

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