Coca-Cola sucks India dry.
Image: Carlos Latuff / Wikimedia CommonsThe marketing executive who came up with Coca-Cola’s popular slogan in 1908 most likely never expected it would be taken so literally. However, a hundred years ago there probably weren’t many who imagined a term like “water wars” could exist in a region that experiences annual monsoons.
On February 25 a complaint was filed in the New York Supreme Court against the The Coca-Cola Company alleging that they knew about and sought to cover up human rights abuses in Guatemala. While that trial gets started, the company’s controversial practices in India continue involving the over-exploitation of limited water resources and the contamination of groundwater supplies. In response to public outcry the soft drink company is now championing itself as a longtime environmental leader and the business community is eager to advertise their claim. Yesterday CNN Money reported that:
Coke has been a leader when it comes to environmental issues: It is aiming to be water neutral — meaning every drop of water used by the company will be replenished — by 2020.
This would come as a surprise to the Plachimada community in the State of Kerala. Ever since Coca-Cola opened a bottling plant on their land in 2000 they have been faced with chronic drought and polluted water. In 2006 these residents of a small impoverished community in southern India began a pitched campaign to evict Coca-Cola from their land which led to fierce battles with local authorities.
In 2003 Indian journalist Arjun Sen wrote in The Statesman:
Three years ago, the little patch of land in the green, picturesque rolling hills of Palakkad yielded 50 sacks of rice and 1,500 coconuts a year. It provided work for dozens of labourers. Then Coke arrived and built a 40-acre bottling plant nearby. In his last harvest, Shahul Hameed, owner of a smallholding, could manage only five sacks of rice and just 200 coconuts. His irrigation wells have run dry, thanks to Coke drawing up to 1.5 million litres of water daily through its deep wells to bottle Coke, Fanta, Sprite, and the drink the locals call without irony, “Thumbs Up.”
To make matters worse, the bottling plant was producing thousands of gallons of toxic sludge and, as the BBC reported, disposed of it by selling the carcinogenic material to local farmers as “fertilizer.” High levels of pesticides were also reportedly found in the soft drink produced in the region leading to bans across the country. According to The Guardian, some Indian farmers even chose to spray their fields with Coca-Cola rather than use the more expensive pesticides from Monsanto.
However, the most serious problem was water use. According to anthropologist Ananthakrishnan Aiyer writing in the journal Cultural Anthropology the persistent water problems in the region soon became a crisis after the company’s arrival:
A severe drought in 2004 in Kerala complicated matters as Plachimada was declared a “water impoverished” zone in 2005. By 2005, the Plachimada situation was being replicated as the struggle over water and irrigation rights spread to other rural communities across the country, which led to several agitations and demonstrations against The Coca-Cola Company.
Despite attempts to revoke their license Coca-Cola remained. As Aiyer pointed out, it would have been foolish not to. The company extracted groundwater nearly free of charge (except for a small fee for discharging wastewater) and they were able to reap enormous profits as a result. In the late 1990s the average cost of industrial water in the U.S. was about five dollars per 10,000 litres, whereas in India the price was a mere three cents.
Water in India is literally free and highly lucrative for private corporations. Thus, access to cheap groundwater and the low cost of extracting it in combination with low labor costs and state and local governments falling over each other to attract “foreign investment,” all play a role in facilitating the entry of transnational corporations into the water industry.
However, this investment, from Coca-Cola and other multinationals, has come at a significant cost to the local population:
The rural population has especially suffered the most. The clearest and most visible signs of this distress, and there are many, are of course the steady numbers of farmer suicides across the country. By several reliable estimates, there have been anywhere from 22,000 to 25,000 suicides by farmers in the past decade and the majority of these have taken place in the western and southern states. This amounts to about seven suicides a day–a situation that would have called for a national emergency in most Western neoliberal states, but it is certainly not the case in India.
Clearly this trend is the result of larger forces and not just the actions of a single company. Aiyer highlights the role of the World Bank in promoting the privatization of water throughout the country that has resulted in multinational companies and wealthy landowners “sidestepping local government bodies and taking direct control of canals
and irrigation schemes.” In the case of Plachimada, Coca-Cola has become a symbol for these larger forces at work:
It is little wonder that the struggle by the residents of Plachimada against The Coca-Cola Company, an eminently concentrated form of capital, galvanized so much support in India and elsewhere, and that their struggle has been inspirational and played a significant role in generating opposition to The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo in other rural communities in India facing similar threats from transnational corporations.
While the Kerala plant was temporarily closed due to the popular protest, to this day the people of Plachimada continue their struggle to receive compensation for contamination and over-exploitation of water resources on their land. Coca-Cola has shifted their operations to other areas of southern India and continues to produce their fizzy drink in a region that regularly faces chronic drought. More than one hundred years since the slogan was first used, “Good Till the Last Drop” continues to have lasting relevance.
AIYER, A. (2007). THE ALLURE OF THE TRANSNATIONAL: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India Cultural Anthropology, 22 (4), 640-658 DOI: 10.1525/can.2007.22.4.640