A month after seven Indian states imposed severe restrictions on the sale of colas and other aerated drinks, the Coca-Cola company has become the target of a vigorous popular campaign in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state.
The campaign's focus is on Coke's bottling plant at Mehdiganj, a small town 35 km from the holy city of Varanasi (Benares), on the Ganges. The plant stands charged with overexploiting groundwater and polluting it with toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and chromium.
Led by the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), the agitation demands that the Mehdiganj plant be shut down, just as another Coke bottling facility, at Plachimada in southern Kerala state, was shut down in March 2004 for mining fresh water and spreading pollution.
The campaign got a major boost last month when the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an environmental policy-oriented non-governmental organization (NGO) announced the results of a study, which found that soft drinks sold in India, including those made by Coca-Cola and Pepsico, contain a cocktail of pesticides at concentrations far higher than considered permissible by national authorities and the World Heath Organization (WHO).
CSE, which has established a formidable reputation for accurate data-gathering and sharp analysis, tested numerous branded aerated drinks sampled from different parts of India. The sample included 28 Coke brands and 29 more from Pepsi.
CSE subjected these to rigorous testing, and found that they have average pesticide concentrations that are about 20 to 25 times higher than the maximum permissible accepted by the official Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).
For instance, Coke's flagship drink contains pesticide 26.8 times the maximum permissible level. Pepsi Cola contains 30.4 times more. These numbers shocked the public and led to outright bans on the manufacture or distribution of colas in Kerala. Six other states, including Karnataka, imposed tough restrictions on the sale of soft drinks within or in proximity of schools, colleges and government offices. There are signs that more of India's 28 states will follow suit.
A cross-section of India's political parties is demanding an outright ban on all soft drinks bottled by multinational corporations. Together, Coke and Pepsi nearly monopolise the soft drinks market in India and sell 355 million cases each year -- though sales have stagnated since 2005.
More than the pesticides it is water extraction that is making soft drink manufacturers unpopular. NAPM says that the excessive extraction by the Mehdiganj plant has led to depletion of groundwater in an area known for abundant water availability, due to its location in the Gangetic delta.
According to R. Chandrika, an engineer who studied the water situation, "ninety percent of the wells around the area have been affected. As many as 39 percent of shallow wells and hand-pumps have either dried up or are in the process of drying up." She said the water table around Mehdiganj has dropped by an average of 18 feet (5.5 metres); there is a severe water shortage in more than 20 villages.
The Indian anti-cola campaign began in 2002, at Plachimada, where villagers were incensed that water levels had sunk and drinking water was contaminated with evil smelling chemicals as a result of Coke's plant. On Apr. 22 that year, they launched a permanent vigil at the plant. Two years later, they succeeded in having its licence cancelled.
Concerns about groundwater contamination with heavy metals have been greatly heightened recently. Last November, two NGOs, the People's Science Institute and the Hazards Centre, tested water from wells one km away from the Plachimada plant. They found lead residues five times higher than the maximum permissible levels recommended by the WHO. Cadmium content was 25 times higher than permissible and chromium concentrations 50 times higher.
"We are getting similar reports from different parts of the country," says Sandeep Pandey, NAPM national coordinator and a highly respected social activist who won the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay award for emergent leadership. "Studies by the Central Pollution Control Board confirm our findings."
Pandey hopes to link the Indian agitation to the growing worldwide campaign against Coke focused on unethical means, including violence against union activists, low labour standards and aggressive marketing targeting children.
Last month, the students' union at University of Sussex in Britain banned all Coca-Cola beverages as reaction to alleged human rights abuses in Colombia. The "Campaign to Stop Killer Coke" is active in 130 university campuses worldwide, including 70 in the United States
The latest disclosures on toxicity have caused a ten percent drop in sales. This has affected the profits of the 1.55 billion US dollar industry in India, which launched a publicity blitz claiming, that its drinks are "safe". TV advertisements currently show Rajeev Bakshi, the chief executive officer of PepsiCo in India, personally endorsing the safety of the beverage.
The health ministry has promised to conduct its own investigations. But it has been silent on why the BIS, which has finalised the safety standards for pesticides, has not notified them or put them into force.
The BIS's failure to notify permissible residue levels and demand industry's compliance is no accident. The Bureau has been under tremendous pressure from the industry and from pro-industry government agencies. In the past too, BIS delayed formulating standards for bottled water, one of India's fastest growing industries, thanks to widespread contamination and pollution of water sources.
However, once the standards were notified, companies started using processes like reverse osmosis (RO) to purify water to a high degree. As a consequence, the quality of bottled water sold in India has improved dramatically.
Coke did get some of its drinks tested by a British laboratory. But this was a paid job and the samples were chosen by Coke itself. This does not constitute an independent study.
Second, the industry threatened to sue CSE for defamation but backed off when the NGO's director, Sunita Narain, called its bluff. Narain and the CSE are recipients of the 2005 Stockholm Water Prize.
Coke and Pepsi even got the U.S. government to intercede on their behalf. Ahead of the arrival of a large trade mission from the U.S., undersecretary for international trade, Franklin L. Lavin, warned India that a ban on soft drinks could "affect investment".
An attempt was made to blame the high pesticide levels on sugar, which accounts for ten percent of the soft drink content. But several prestigious laboratories in India analysed sugar samples and found them pesticide-free.
The real culprit is the water that the soft drinks companies use. According to an industry insider, the companies use relatively cheap filters to remove gross impurities, and some (but not all) microbes. They will use RO techniques if forced to. But RO is expensive and will raise overheads.
While the government is committed to an "investor friendly" climate and to promoting consumerism, including processed foods and drinks, it cannot provide popularity to any product. In the people's eyes, Coke and Pepsi now stand for dirt and poison.