The recent Coca-Cola ad had one gaping with disbelief. As bottles of cola moved robotically on conveyor belts in the background, movie star Amir Khan described how he personally ventured into a Coca-Cola bottling factory to investigate a moral dilemma: had he been endorsing an unsafe drink all this time? As a factory man described what sounded like the third degree that water and sugar went through at the hands of the cola giant, Khan confidently pulled a bottle out of a moving row and raised it to his lips.
The message is clear. Coke has added another zero to its Indian brand ambassador's paycheck.
Ever since the actor's support to the Narmada Bachao Andolan and his new-found activism, cynics have been asking how he can support a company whose products have been found to have an unacceptably high pesticide content. And for a company that is at the centre of modern water wars from Columbia in South America to Varanasi, Kaladera and Plachimada in India. But some, like my 12-year-old daughter, had given him the benefit of doubt; they waited patiently for his moment of realization. Now that it has come in the form of renewed support to the cola giant, it is time again to examine the many issues hidden under the Coca-Cola carpet.
How safe is Coca-Cola? This question, of course, begs another. Safety from whose point of view - of those who drink it or of those affected by its production? Following highly-publicized reports by independent agencies, which point to unacceptably high levels of pollutants in soft drinks, media attention has tended to concentrate on the consumer.
Recently, the media highlighted a report by the NGO, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), released in September 2006, which found a potent cocktail of pesticides in the drink. Soon thereafter, newspapers quoted a UK study that completely contradicted CSE's findings. Only a few reports added that the UK study had been commissioned by - and conducted on samples sent by - Coca-Cola itself; a fact that certainly casts a shadow of doubt on the authenticity of the findings.
It is the second aspect of the problem - safety from the point of view of people affected by the production of Coca-Cola - that many, including movie stars and the media, tend to ignore. Had Khan visited Plachimada in Kerala, he might have lost some of the fizz. Once a sleepy rice-producing village, Plachimada, located 40 km from Palakkad in Kerala, is the mythical David to Coca-Cola's Goliath.
The cola giant established its production factory in Plachimada in March 2000 and soon began drawing up to one million liters of groundwater. As its chemical-intensive production process spewed effluents and solid waste, the company found an ingenious waste management system. It simply distributed the solid waste as agricultural fertilizer to unsuspecting farmers in the region. Their crops were damaged, and yields dropped significantly. Within six months, local villagers observed strange changes in the groundwater. Their wells began to dry up, and their water "went bad". It smelled foul and contact with it led to itching, sores and skin eruptions. Drinking it led to bouts of nausea and headache. Tomatoes, brinjals and other crops began to wilt. The village women now had an additional task in their list of arduous domestic and farming responsibilities: a daily two-kilometer walk in search of potable water.
Recent studies - such as those by the University of Exeter, 2003 and the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, 2003 - have confirmed that Coca-Cola's factory wastes are full of toxins. These toxins leach into the groundwater, making it unfit for domestic and agricultural use. According to a study by noted hydrologist Mahadevan Pillai, due for release in November 2006, the lead, chlorides, manganese and toxic solid contents present in Plachimada's groundwater are much higher than permissible limits. The study concludes that the poisoning is due to two factors: excessive water extraction - leading to high concentrations of chemicals - and toxic waste discharge.
The villagers of Plachimada, however, did not need a scientific study to tell them what was wrong. Organizing on the basis of their daily unfolding miseries, they began a historic struggle against Coca-Cola. An indefinite sit-in, which began in April 2002 in front of the factory's gates, has been sustained non-stop till date; the protesters are mostly poor agricultural workers who must forfeit the day's wages as the price of expressing their anger. Their struggle has drawn unequivocal support from mainstream political parties to students of more than 100 American universities. It continues to challenge the elitist discourse on globalization in India.
Coca-Cola is today mired in controversy. It is embattled with Plachimada's local panchayat which - despite the increased revenues the company's operations bring it - revoked its license to the company. And following CSE's report on pesticides in colas, many state governments implemented a full (Delhi, Kerala, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh) or partial (Chattisgarh, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh) ban on cola products.
Coca-Cola promptly moved the Kerala High Court. In a setback to the struggle, on September 22, 2006, a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court ruled that the state government had no powers to pass orders prohibiting the manufacture and sale of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Skirting the safety issue, the court added that the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) had not prescribed any standard for testing pesticide residues in finished products.
What does it matter if independent studies confirm that the coke you drink is really a cocktail of cancer-producing pesticides? What does it matter that, even without pesticides, the drink is hazardous, potentially leading to obesity and diabetes? What does it matter that workers fighting for their rights in Coca-Cola's plant in Columbia were murdered by company goons? Coca-Cola's annual revenue of over US$ 23 billion gives it the power it needs to silence all questions and to convince a few celebrities, a few scientists and sundry judicial experts.
The battle against Coke and Pepsi is by no means an easy one. It is no longer a question of how much pesticide content is acceptable in soft drinks. Or even whether celebrity icons can be persuaded to take a responsible stand. It is, in fact, a battle against a way of life - a way of life that is usurping the lands of the poor and vulnerable, and sucking dry the natural resource base of the country. Disguised as 'the good life', it actually promotes ill-heath and profits from the sale of poisonous substances to gullible millions. It professes to increase freedom of choice but in effect gives the poor the choice between death by suicide or death by poverty.