Stealing Water From Women : The Cola Giants & The Violation of Women’s Water Rights

Submitted by Hindi on Fri, 04/22/2016 - 14:58
A Report by ‘Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology’ for National Commission for Women, January, 2005, Page 101-104.

In a water-stressed India, two companies are able to extract nearly a combined billion litres of potable water per day to earn Rs. 4000 crore a year ( two thirds of the Rs. 6000 crore industry) while communities living near the company's’ operations are forced to do with depleted, contaminated, and unhealthy local supplies. With few government regulations to curb water over extraction practices and inadequate environmental monitoring to catch and penalise polluting practices, villagers living near the 55 plants operating under the Coca-Cola Company and the 38 plants operating under PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt. Ltd. are forced to witness daily the decline in quantity and quality of their precious water resources.

The villagers-especially the women-of Plachimada in the state of kerala illustrate the extent of suffering that foreign multinationals inflict when their water extraction and pollution practices are not properly regulated. Living near one of Coca-Cola’s largest bottling plants, commissioned in March 2000 to produce 1,224,000 bottles of Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite, Limca, Thums Up, Kinley bottled water, and Maaza fruit drinks, villagers watched as the company extracted some 1.5 million litres a day. The extraction of water by the company from 65 bore wells with electric pumps depleted the groundwater supplies from 150 to 500 feet. Suddenly, communities that had previously enjoyed sufficient water supplies found themselves with an extreme water scarcity. As a result of the depleted water resources; the livelihood of 2,000 farm families was destroyed.

ActionAid, a British NGO, the investigated the water situation in the village and determined that Plachimada was thriving agricultural community until the arrival of the bottling plant in 1998. Wate loss was not restricted to depleting ground water supplies. By dumping wastewater into dry bore wells and depositing waste material outside the company premises that leaked into paddy fields, canals, and wells, 260 bore wells were contaminated. Health problems increased. Women and children were the first to be affected. On 13 May 2003, the Chief Medical Officer of Palaghat declared that the water was unfit for drinking after having tested three wells surrounding the Coca-Cola Company’s bottling plant and finding high chloride and hardness levels. With inadequate and contaminated water supplies, women had to walk as many as 4 to 6 kilometres in order to gather the water they needed to perform their daily duties.

Analyses of the sludge from Plachimada by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi and the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom found unsafe levels of the carcinogens cadmium and iron. The repeated exposure and accumulation of cadmium can cause kidney failure. Lead is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and children as it can cause mental retardation and severe anemia even at low levels.

Professor John Henry, a consultant at the St. Mary’s Hospital in London, summarises the health concerns of overexposure to cadmium and Lead. “ the results have devastating consequences for those living near the areas where this waste has been dumped and for the thousands who depend on crops produced in these fields…. What most worries me about the levels found is how this might be affecting pregnant women in the area. You would expect to see an increase in miscarriages, stillbirths, and premature deliveries. According to women in the area, they have seen just that. Women now avoid their contaminated water supplies, whispering that even surface contact with the water from bathing has caused miscarriges.

Outraged, the tribal women in Plachimada in Palaghat district began sitting in protest against the Coca-Cola Company and enlisting the support of community members and Panchayat leaders. In support of their cause, the Perumatty Panchayat filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Kerala High Court against Coca-Cola. On 17 February 2004, the kerala Chief Minister ordered the closure of the plant. To date, the Perumatty Panchayat refuses to give the company permission to resume operations.

Although the women of Plachimada were successfully able to oppose the water over extraction and pollution practices of Coca-Cola Company’s plant, there are some 89 other factories across the India that daily threaten community access to safe and adequate supplies of water.

In the town of Mehdiganj, located 20km from the holy city of Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, villagers are protesting against the unjust practices of the plant near their home. The Bharat Coca-Cola Bottling North East Private Limited, operating under the Coca-Cola Company since 1999, is designed to produce 600 bottles per minute of Coca-Cola brand beverages.5 The company’s extraction of millions of litres of water a day has contributed to a 40-foot drop in community water resources. While the loss of groundwater may not appear significant in contrast to the drop in groundwater levels in Plachimada, women in Mehdiganj see the loss of water as a sign of what is to come and they worry daily if there will be enough water to supply their family’s needs. They are also aware that, like in Plachimada, Coca-Cola factories have contaminated water supplies after dumping wastewater into empty borewells that leaked toxins into local water resources.

The worst injustice by the Coca-Cola plant in Mehdiganj, however, was the dumping of wastewater that flooded 20-50 acres of agricultural land in the plant’s vicinity in October of 2002. Since the water blocked the main road leading to the village, women and children became exposed to the water taking the shortest route home. Village women testified that a mere five minutes of exposure to the wastewater caused painful rashes that lasted two to four months. Until May 2003, when the company was ordered to remove the water by the District Administration under Section 133, women were forced to walk extra distances to avoid the contaminated water.

The flooding of agricultural land with wastewater had other serious impacts. With the fields full of water, the mosquito population grew. Instances of malaria and other water-borne diseases rose, especially among children. A year after the waste water was removed, farmers are finding that their fields are no longer fruitful. Mango trees that before October 2002 were full of ripe fruit in the summers are now barren. Not a mango can be found. Farmers put their agricultural output of essential crops such as wheat, paddy, and chickpeas at 10-50% of their previous output. With less income-generation prospects, affected farmers are being forced to go out and look for work. Women now worry how they will feed their families and who will look after their children if they are forced to find employment outside of their village.

In response to the water over-extraction and pollution of the plant in Mehdiganj, near Varanasi on 10 May 2003, 100 people held a demonstration outside the factory. They were met by 200 police along with 50 gun-toting security guards who tried to disperse the crowd with violence, beating the women as well as the men in front of the police lines. An elderly woman, Jagrupa Devi, was sent to the hospital with bleeding head injuries. She is now one of the main leaders against the company and a reminder to the entire community of the strength of their resistance.

In Kaladera, 60 km outside of Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan, villagers have been lucky in so far they have not experienced the widespread contamination of their local water supplies. They are, however, facing water scarcity. Due to the Coca-Cola plant’s activities in the last five years, the groundwater level fell from 40 to 125 feet. Many wells and hand pumps have dried up. As a result, villagers must scramble to make ends meet with the small amount of daily water that the government delivers to them. Although the government and the Coca-Cola Company are pitching in to install new, deeper tubewells, villagers complain that they want water sovereignty, not conscience-appeasing charity.

An interview with two women, who live on the outskirts of Kaladera, showed that outside the centre the situation is worse because there are no daily government water handouts. Instead of enjoying the clean water that filled their wells five years ago, the women now have to make do with the murky water at the bottom. When asked about health problems, the women confirmed that they got sick at first but they added: “ Now we are used to it”

The massive extraction of water by the beverage industry in India is shocking when see in contrast to the inadequate and unsafe water supplies that women and families struggle to meet the requirements of daily life. The reason for the discrepancy is that, in India, there are no Laws on groundwater extraction that distinguish between the secondary water use of industry (to facilitate the creation of non-potable products) and the primary use of water by the beverage industry for the sale of products that contain water as their main component. Unlike in Europe, where industry is not allowed to draw groundwater, in India beverage companies can deplete groundwater levels for a pittance. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, industry is charged around 2 to 4 paise per litre. According to P.C Chako, the Ground Water Authority’s executive engineer, Palakkad division, Pepsico has been buying water at Rs. 10.60 for 1,000 litres when the market price for a litre of branded mineral water is Rs. 12. As States are in charge of managing their own water resources under Entry 17 of the State List, Entry 56 of the union List, and Article 262 of Indian Constitution, the fluctuation in prices varies regionally. The variation in water resource management is compounded by the liberty granted to Panchayats, local governing bodies at the village and city level, under the 73rd and the 74 Amendments. With the oversight over water resources, water development, and sanitation, Panchayats have a say in how water in their localities is used. Unfortunately, corrupt state and local government leaders have been more than willing to overlook soda beverage company abuses in return for money and overinflated promises of local employment. The result, as the Joint Parliamentary Committee’s report shows, is that in most cases water resources are given away at rock-bottom costs in most of the states where these companies operate.

The practice of giving away precious groundwater at minimal cost to the beverage industry must be curbed. States and Panchayats must price water at its actual cost to insure that women no longer have to do without when soda companies in their villages extract millions of litres a day. The practice of water pollution and the contamination of local water supplies by the CocaCola Company and Pepsico must also be put to an end. If women are to enjoy the right to clean, safe water resources, regulation and environmental monitoring of the soda beverage industry is mandatory.

Coke’s Criminal Activities in Mehdiganj, Varanasi

A peaceful march of 1000 citizens was brutally attacked by the police near the Coca Cola plant in Mehediganj near the Holy city of Varanasi and hundreds have been arrested on 24th November 2004. While many of the arrested were women, there was only two women constable. Male police were manhandling women protesters who had reached the plant after one week march through affected villages and were 300 meters away from the gate, when they were lathi charged. They were kept in the open without food all night. A peaceful march of citizens defending their right to water and life is being defined as a “crime” because Coke, a criminal corporation is bribing and influencing the police to create a police state for continuing its crimes against people and nature.

As in every other coke plant, the company is extracting millions of litres of water per day, leading to a 40 m drop in water level, inspite of the plant being near the Ganga. In 2002, Coke has also dumped its toxic wastewater on the 50 acres of agricultural land. The wastewater was earlier being dumped untreated in the Ganga, but the World Bank’s super highway blocked the flow into the river. Then the toxic water was allowed to flow in nearby fields till the company was ordered to remove the water by the District Administration under Section 133. Even after the draining of water, the fields yield only 10% compared to earlier corps due to toxic contamination. No mangoes bear fruit.

At every step Coca Cola has engaged in criminal activity. It has illegally occupied land of the village Panchayat, but the Court order, which called for the removal of the plant, has not been implemented.

Coke cheated the government of 1 crore 75 lakh rupees in stamp duty, and was fined by a local court.

On 23rd of November, when the protestors including Sandeep Pandey, the Magsaysay Award winner who returned his award, were meeting in Kashi Vidyapeeth, Coke sent goons to disrupt the University gathering. Four people were arrested and three vehicles with coke propaganda were confiscated.

Yet the criminal corporation bribed local police to arrest the innocent, peaceful villagers, who are already victims of Coke water theft, toxic pollution and land grab. On 10th May 2003, Jagurpa Devi had been inured during another protest; she is now a local leader.

Women protesting against water theft