Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
It was very surprising to read in the Daily Gazette dated September 12, 2007 [here] that the India Resource Center has made “unsubstantiated or exaggerated” charges against the Coca-Cola company’s operations in India, according to Mr. Jed Rakoff, a Board of Manager at Swarthmore College.
We are also alarmed at the news that the Board of Managers will revisit the decision to remove Coca-Cola from the Swarthmore campus.
We would like to point out some salient features from one community’s campaign in India to hold Coca-Cola accountable that should help the Swarthmore community in understanding that, indeed, the charges against Coca-Cola are based on facts and hold merit.
One of Coca-Cola’s largest bottling plants in Plachimada in the south Indian state of Kerala has been shut down since March 2004 because of the intense community opposition to the plant. The community in Plachimada accused the Coca-Cola bottling plant of causing severe water shortages and polluting the land and water.
A number of studies, including those by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, have confirmed that the company is responsible for polluting the area. The studies have consistently found high levels of heavy metals, including lead and cadmium, in and around Coca-Cola’s bottling plants, and both the land as well as the scarce remaining groundwater have been polluted as a result of Coca-Cola’s operations.
As a result of the pollution, the Coca-Cola company is unable to receive a “no-objection” certificate from the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, a permit that is required to open the plant, and hence it remains shut down.
As for the claims of the water scarcity, the issue of how much water Coca-Cola takes from the common groundwater resource is not of primary concern to us.
What concerns us most is how the Coca-Cola company further exacerbates the already existing water crises in the area by locating a massive water guzzling plant in drought prone areas.
As it is, Plachimada is known as a rain shadow area i.e. an area receiving less rain due to geography, and as a result, considered to be a dry area. Coca-Cola knew that this was a rain shadow area prior to siting their factory in this area. Locating a bottling plant in a rain shadow area is the height of irresponsibility, particularly when it comes from a “hydration” company such as Coca-Cola whose primary raw material is water. The company’s bottling plant in Plachimada extracted an average of 500,000 liters of water every day, a massive amount by any measure.
In typical fashion, the Coca-Cola company has continued to challenge each and every study and action against it in India.
Coca-Cola has challenged the village council that revoked its license, it has challenged the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalists that reported that Coca-Cola was distributing its toxic waste to farmers as fertilizer, it has challenged the Kerala State Pollution Control Board that found excessive levels of heavy metals in Coca-Cola’s waste, it has challenged one of the highest ranking governmental bodies possible to be set up in India – the Joint Parliamentary Committee – that found extremely high levels of pesticides in its products, and it is challenging the state government of Kerala which will be arguing against the Coca-Cola company before the Supreme Court of India.
There are other communities in India that are also facing similar problems of increased water shortages and pollution – soon after the Coca-Cola company started operations. In Mehdiganj, in north India, for example, government reports confirm what the local farmers have been saying all along – that groundwater tables have decreased substantially since Coca-Cola started operations. In the state of Rajasthan, famous for its deserts and drought, the Central Ground Water Board of India has confirmed that groundwater tables have fallen 9.45 meters in just the first five years of Coca-Cola’s operations.
Perhaps Mr. Rakoff would have been more accurate if he had described the situation as outrageous, because that is exactly how thousands of farmers across India feel when a bottling plant shows up and renders their fields uncultivable and unproductive as a result of water shortages and pollution.
The Swarthmore community, along with a growing number of colleges and universities that the India Resource Center has worked with, have asked for a fair and independent investigation into the issues in India. And what they got from Coca-Cola was spin – the appointment of a group that the company funds and sponsors, the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) – to conduct an “independent” and “third party” investigation into the issues in India.
Communities in India affected by Coca-Cola welcome a serious investigation by the academic community and we actually expect a rigorous investigation into the issues. But the choice of TERI is neither fair, independent or third party.
Swarthmore College did the right thing by terminating its business relationship with the Coca-Cola company and it needs to keep the pressure on Coca-Cola so that the company does the right thing in India.