Sunday, December 28, 2003

Published on Tuesday, June 24, 2003 by
Water-Guzzling Coke Plant Triggers Protests in Indian Town
by Kalyani

NEW DELHI - In view of an impending water crisis, environmental activists will hold a protest rally in north India next month to enlist support for ousting beverage multinationals like Coca Cola, accused of polluting and exploiting scarce groundwater.

A protest rally will be held in the north Indian city of Varanasi next month to highlight the role of Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) such as Coca-Cola in the looming water crisis, the organizers say. The protest is led by two local organizations, the Lok Samity and the Samajwadi Janparishad, members of the National Alliance of Peoples' Movements, an umbrella body of environmental and other social groups.

The activists are protesting against a Coca-Cola plant located in Mehdiganj, some 20 kilometers from Varanasi. They claim that the plant draws electricity from two diesel power generators, one of which consumes 360 liters of diesel per hour. Two tube-wells draw thousands of liters of underground water.

"The consumption of underground water by the company has led to a lowering of the underground water level from 15 to 40 feet," says Aflatoon, state general secretary of the Samajwadi Janparishad.

The activists, who claim the factory disgorges toxic industrial waste into neighboring fields and mango orchards, continue to urge the government to revoke the plant's industrial license.

"Many expelled workers of the plant who are with the movement, say the pollutant, Caustic Soda -- used for washing bottles, is causing the environmental damage," says Aflatoon.

According to Aflatoon, people living in villages around the plant often break out in rashes on drinking the water. Worse, the water has damaged wheat and paddy fields and the chick-pea crop in the region, he alleges.

There are other negative fallouts. As Aflatoon points out, "Polluted water stagnating in the fields has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes, causing Malaria." He goes so far as to allege that, "A village dog died after drinking the water."

According to Aflatoon, the destruction caused by the pollution from the factory has forced local farmers to organize themselves and demand ' Cola Bhagao, Gaon Bachao '(Oust Coca Cola, Save the Village).

Petitions have been sent to local officials as well as the President of India demanding the ouster of the MNC, which was earlier asked to leave the country by the Indian federal government in 1977.

Coca Cola withdrew from India after the Indian Government demanded it reveal the formula of the popular drink. It made a comeback in 1993 after New Delhi initiated a process of economic reforms. The American MNC is today one of the biggest foreign investors in India.

Last month too, environment activists held a protest march in Varanasi, following which the local administration ordered an inquiry into allegations of water pollution caused by the bottling plant.

The Varanasi protest comes in the wake of a similar movement in Kerala in south India last year. Last summer, villagers in the Palakaad district of Kerala demanded the closure of the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, a local unit of the MNC.

The villagers held that the MNC had dug up borewells for its water requirements, causing wells and ponds in the area to dry up. After a two-month-long protest, the local administration revoked the license of the Coca-Cola factory in the state.

Currently, the lowering of ground-level tables is causing severe water crises in different parts of the country. India's capital, Delhi, tops the list of water scarce cities, followed by Mumbai in the west and Bangalore and Hyderabad in south India.

The situation, experts warn, is likely to worsen in the coming years. According to Indian government figures, areas with access to water supply in Delhi will plummet from 81.5 percent to 26 per cent in the next 20 years.

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