Paul Vallely, Jon Clarke and Liz Stuart
25 July 2003
Three years ago, the little patch of land
in the green, picturesque rolling hills of Palakkad in the Indian state
of Kerala yielded 50 sacks of rice and 1,500 coconuts a year. It provided
work for dozens of labourers. Then Coca-Cola arrived and built a 40-acre
bottling plant next door.
In his last harvest,
Shahul Hameed, the farmer who owns the modest smallholding, could coax
only five sacks of rice from the land, and a meagre 200 coconuts. His
irrigation wells have run dry. Meanwhile, the huge factory extracts
up to 1.5 million litres of water a day from the deep wells it has drilled
into the aquifer to produce Coke, Fanta, Sprite and the drink the locals
call, without irony, Thumbs-Up.
But the cruellest
twist is that the plant bottles a brand of mineral water while local
people - who could never afford it - have to walk up to six miles twice
a day to fetch water. The turbid, brackish water which remains at the
bottom of their wells is now too high in dissolved salts to be healthy
to drink, cook with or even wash in. Some claim it made them ill.
As the summer and
the water crisis intensifies, the hardship of the local people is worsening.
So is the row between them and the company whose name is for many a
synonym for the global power of transnational capitalism. For the past
459 days, there has been a daily picket of the factory. There have been
street demonstrations and rallies, and spontaneous blackening of Coca-Cola
hoardings. More than 300 people have been arrested.
Then earlier this
year the Perumatty panchayat (local council) revoked the factory's licence
to operate. It did so despite losing almost half of its annual income
- some 700,000 rupees (about £9,000) - from the decision. Coca-Cola's
lawyers appealed to the next level of government, which suspended the
revocation and allowed the factory to continue operating. The matter
comes to a head at an appeal before the state government next week.
It is an iconic
dispute, a David and Goliath battle between multinational power and
some of the world's poorest people. Many of those affected are classed
by the Indian government as "primitive tribals". Most of the
rest are dalits - "untouchables". Few in power took much notice
when they began to complain, six months after the factory opened, of
changes in the quantity and quality of well water. So the anger of the
local people grew.
Shahul Hameed looked
out over one of his bone-dry paddy fields this week and visibly shook
with anger. "My irrigation pump, which I installed with a bank
loan in 1980, used to run for 12 hours throughout the night; now it
runs dry after 30 minutes," he said, above the noise of clinking
glass from the factory next door. "Coke managed to acquire all
the lowest lying land in the area and after digging a series of deep
wells they took all the water. It is downright theft."
Every day 85 lorryloads
leave the premises, each containing 550 cases of 24 bottles. To produce
them the company siphons off enough water to meet the minimum requirements
of about 20,000 people. They have not only lost their water but, with
the dried-out farms closing, also their jobs. Those worst affected are
up to 10,000 landless labourers.
responsibility for all this. In a statement from its headquarters in
Atlanta, it said: "We would like to emphasise that, to the best
of our knowledge, these allegations made against the plant in Kerala
"In fact, we
believe that the allegations are politically motivated. The plant concerned
has not drained the aquifers and uses only six bore wells. In fact,
the local villages receive tankers of free water supplies each day from
the plant to supplement their existing water sources." And, it
said, the company was establishing an elaborate system for rainwater
The real culprit,
the company says, is a reduction in rainfall in the area - from 1,213
mm in 2000, to 1,147mm in 2001 and just 670mm in 2002. It quotes India's
National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad as saying: "There
is no field evidence of overexploitation of the groundwater reserves
in the plant area."
All of this is disputed.
A local human rights and development organisation, VAK, which is funded
by Christian Aid, claims state meteorological reports show rainfall
rose between 2000 and 2001. Another campaign group, CorpWatch India,
challenges Coke's claims about rainwater harvesting, saying "how
much you save through your rainwater harvesting is not the issue; how
much additional load you add to the aquifer is".
The quality of the
water is an issue too. CorpWatch sent samples for analysis to the United
States. The resulting report concluded that high levels of dissolved
salts were produced by the fast rate of depletion of the aquifer - and
that washing in it would cause "severe hardship"..
Then there is pollution.
Chemical effluents produced by bottle-washing contaminate the groundwater,
protesters say. Early attempts to dry the foul-smelling slurry and market
it as fertiliser failed when farmers started to develop sores on their
skin and noticed that their coconut palms were dying. The plant tried
to give it away but no one wanted it. Protesters have been gathering
it up and dumping it in front of the plant.
The company denies
there is a problem. It says: "Technologies are also equivalent
to most Coca-Cola bottling plants in the United States and Europe. Further,
our effluents comply with standards and norms set by the Kerala State
Pollution Control Board."
The local authorities
have backed the multinational, arguing that it creates jobs. A wide
spectrum of politicians shared a platform at a rally outside the factory
last year to threaten "dire consequences" if the protests
did not stop.
no notice. Local council tax records, they said, showed that there are
only 134 permanent staff at the plant. Indeed, some of the protesters
had once worked there but quit. "'I used to get terrible headaches
working there," Saraswathi Kaliappan, 38, who worked as a bottle
washer for two years, said. Conditions were so poor she claimed she
wouldn't go back if the pay was doubled.
But then, in April,
the local council changed its mind. Prompted by new data from the Kerala
State Health Department that people should not drink from wells neighbouring
the plant, it acted. The panchayat decided not to renew the industrial
licence issued to Coca-Cola on the ground of "protecting public
"We were persuaded
the company would bring money and jobs to the area," Arychami Krishnan,
the council's president, said. "But the reality is few local people
have been employed and the water situation and pollution is a calamity."
The decision did
not stand for long. Coca-Cola workers set up a counter-protest outside
the council headquarters and 1,000 demonstrators marched on the town
hall. The US ambassador to India wrote to the Indian Prime Minister,
stating: "I would like to bring to your attention, and seek your
help in resolving, a potentially serious investment problem of some
significance to both our countries. The case involves Coca-Cola, one
of the largest single foreign investors in India." The Kerala Local
Self Government Department ruled the factory could stay open pending
next week's appeal hearing.
Aid agency campaigners
have protested. "This is a shocking situation where it appears
that the rights of a big corporation are being put above those of poor
communities," an Action Aid spokesman said. "This is a classic
case of corporate irresponsibility," said Christian Aid, which
is calling for "binding international regulations".
But few expect that
the final verdict for the waterless people of Kerala will be anything
other than "Let them drink Coke".
HOW SEARCH FOR HEADACHE
REMEDY SPAWNED GLOBAL INDUSTRY
By Oliver Duff
started life in Atlanta in 1886, the result of a search for a headache
It is now
the biggest selling and most popular soft drink in history.
international bottling plants opened in 1906 in Canada, Cuba and Panama.
brands are Sprite, Dr Pepper, Bacardi Mixers, Nestlé, Nescafé,
Schweppes and Fanta.
13,000 Coca-Cola beverages are consumed every second of the day, reaching
six billion consumers.
70 per cent
of its income comes from outside the US.
In 2000 Coca-Cola
paid out $192.5m (£120m) to African-American employees who accused
the company of racial discrimination.
the biggest-selling soft drink brand in America, but sales there slumped
by 2 per cent in 2002.