A ‘Jal Adhikar Yatra,’ to assert people’s right over water resources and protect it from privatization by corporations like Coca Cola and Pepsico was recently taken out from the Coca Cola plant in Mehdiganj, Varanasi to the Parliament in Delhi. This yatra went through all the Coke and Pepsi plants in U.P. and the Coca Cola plant outside Jaipur in Kala Dera and concluded with a three day dharna at Jantar Mantar. The yatra received tremendous support on the way as can be seen from the media reports.

Coca Cola claims that there is no movement in Mehdiganj, Varanasi and in fact, the local people are opposed to the movement against Coca Cola. The fact is that Coca Cola has been hiring goons and unemployed youth and villagers to disrupt the meetings and protests against its plant in Mehdiganj. A strong movement has sprung up in the past three years here. The biggest threat that the farmers of the region face is a fast depleting water table. According to a recent study the water table in wells in an area of 3 km from the plant site has fallen by 18 feet on an average since the plant began operating whereas the corresponding fall in water table during the last decade was only 1.6 ft. In addition the sludge coming out of the Mehdiganj Coca Cola plant and 15 other Coke and Pepsi plants around the country was found to contain dangerous levels of Cadmium, Chromium and Lead which are contaminating the agricultural fields and ground water. The local farmers have been demanding cancellation of license of this plant and winding up its operations. Twice when they arrived at the plant gate on 10th September, 2003 and 24th November, 2004, to demand closure of the plant they were beaten by the police and private security guards of Coca Cola, weilding iron rods, and put in jail. Thousands of people have protested outside the plant and hundreds have gone to jail. The claims of Coca Cola that local people oppose the movement in ridiculous. In fact, in the 20-25 villages adjacent to the plant it’ll be difficult to find anybody who does not oppose Coca Cola. When the company has to organize artificial and sponsored ‘protests’ against the movement it has to bring people in tractor trolleys from distant villages.

Coca Cola has also been encroaching upon Gram Sabha land at Mehdiganj and last year a District Magistrate took action against the Gram Pradhan for having illegally allowed Coca Cola to encroach this piece of land. However, no action has been taken against the company yet. At Sinhachawar, Ballia, also in U.P., last last year Coca Cola at another plant site tried to put gates to encroach upon a Gram Sabha road. The vigilant villagers uprooted this gate and performed voluntary service on this road to reestablish the claim of Gram Sabha over it. When Coca Cola bought the plant at Mehdiganj from Thums Up in 1999 it cheated the government on stamp duty to the extent of Rs. 1 crore and 75 lakhs and was fined a similar amount for this act by a local court. They still haven’t paid the complete amount of Rs. 3.5 crores which they owe to the government.

Coca Cola has been involved in killing of 9 workers of their plant in Coloumbia with the help of mercenaries. The issues of labour rights violations in Coloumbia and stealing of water belonging to Indian farmers have been dominating discussions in the shareholders meeting of the company for the last two successive years as well as on student campuses across North America. A number of Universities have decided to place a ban on Coca Cola because of these two issues.

What do you call a company who kills its own workers, hires goons to disrupt protests against it, defaults on payments to the government, encroaches upon public land, poisons the agricultural fields and ground water, makes its consumers drink pesticides and hazardous materials and loots the water resources and money of poor third world countries? It can only be compared with a habitual criminal.

The most serious issue is the intervention of a US government official threatening the fate of FDI in India, defending Coke and Pepsi when their image was tarnished by the Centre for Science and Environment presence of pesticides report in the soft drinks manufactured by these companies. It appears that the US government has an upper hand than our own government in determining that Coke and Pepsi will stay in this country.

The protests against Coca Cola and Pepsico have been gathering momentum and despite the attempt by Coke officials to discredit the movement it appears that their days in this country are numbered. The demand has already gone down. India is one of the three countries where these soft drink manufacturers are witnessing a decline in sales. The long queues of trucks outside the Mehdiganj plant on Grand Trunk Road ready to transport bottles to the dealers till last year were absent this summer. This is an ominous sign for Coca Cola.

By Sandeep Pandey