Coca-Cola Sucking India Dry

Holding it responsible for the aggravation of water crisis in the area, village councils here have opposed Coca-Cola’s plans of expanding its existing bottling plant at Mehdiganj, 20 km from here, and called on the government to stop the company’s current groundwater extraction.

Fifteen panchayats or village councils here have asked the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) and the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) to reject Coca-Cola’s application for expansion. Coca-Cola had applied to the CGWA and the UPPCB to increase its groundwater usage from the current 50,000 cubic metres annually to 2,50,000 cubic metres for its bottling plant in Mehdiganj.

Pointing out that since Coca-Cola started its bottling operations there in 1999, groundwater resources had fallen sharply — dropping 7.9 metres (26 feet) — the panchayats said the company should halt its current ground water extraction as well.

The panchayats also noted the negative impact the ‘over-extraction’ by the bottling plant was having on the area’s groundwater resources, making access to drinking and farming water difficult for the community.

Since hand pumps, wells, bore wells and ponds in the area have dried up, the government had to declare the area’s groundwater resources as critical. Moreover, due to the water scarcity, the authorities have banned the installation of all new government hand pumps and bore wells. The affected villages are located within a five-kilometre radius of the bottling plant.

They are Mehndiganj, Bhikaripur, Dholapur, Deora, Bhadrashi, Nagepur, Benipur, Kallipur, Chandapur, Kachariya, Monglavir, Bhabaniyav, Rakhona, Kundariya and Ganeshpur.

“There is grave injustice taking place here as villages and farmers are left without water while Coca-Cola continues to mine groundwater, and that too for profit. Communities have primary rights over the use of groundwater, and we have decided that it is in the best interest of the communities to not allow Coca-Cola to expand, and also to put an end immediately to its current groundwater use,” said Mukesh Kumar, sarpanch of Nagepur panchayat, Mukesh Kumar.

In Arajiline block, where the company’s factory is located, the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), India’s primary groundwater monitoring institution, in 2009 declared groundwater resources as “critical”.

As a result, significant restrictions were imposed on groundwater usage there too.

Social Activist Nandlal Master, who has since 2003 organised a local movement against the bottling plant under the NGO Lok Samiti, said extracting so much water, especially in peak water scarcity season, would ruin the villagers.

“On the one hand the authorities are not allowing villagers to get hand pumps and on the other Coca-Cola is asking for an NOC [No Objection Certificate] to extract five times the current groundwater amount. What’s the logic behind this?” he asked.

“Excess” extraction

Also, a 2012 report by the CGWB, labelled Coca-Cola’s current groundwater extraction in Mehdiganj as “excess” and found the company’s much touted water conservation measures to be ineffective.

According to Mr. Master, the CGWB has acknowledged a study that has shown rainwater harvesting as being ineffective in solving the area’s water crisis.

Amit Srivastava, of international campaigning group India Resource Centre, said the company’s plans to “increase its water usage five-fold in a highly water-stressed area is irresponsible and reprehensible.”

“The company’s grandiose claims of being water stewards fail completely when put to test. If Coca-Cola were genuine about their sustainability claims, the company would surely not propose to expand in a water-stressed area and stop their current groundwater mining, as the village councils have asked,” Mr. Srivastava said.

Locals also claim that the sludge released from the bottling plant is damaging crops and soil. In its 2003 study of waste samples from 15 bottling plants across India (nine Coca-Cola and seven Pepsico), the Central Pollution Control Board found excessive levels of cadmium and chromium in almost all the sludge it tested at Mehdiganj. The company was then ordered to treat its waste as hazardous waste.

No representative from Coca-Cola was available for comment.

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