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24 Apr, 2010 02:27

Coca-Cola still faces pollution disputes in India

Six years after Coca-Cola’s bottling plant shut down in India’s southern state of Kerala, the company continues to face allegations claiming it caused the depletion of groundwater and polluted the water resources.

“Before, the food we cooked used to stay for 7 days. But after this plant came, the water became so bad that the food would spoil in a few hours, says Tangammai, a farm labourer in Kerala’s village of Plachimada where the plant operated.

Crops were also affected, says local farmer Murugan. He grows coconuts just outside the plant’s perimeter and says the trees recovered only after the plant closed.

“The sludge that came out of the plant used to contaminate the rainwater and flood this area,” recalls Murugan. “As a result, the crop yield was reduced and the coconuts used to fall off without ripening. This continued for two years after the plant closed. Things got better after that, and now, you can see, the trees are healthier.

A recent report by the government-appointed committee in Kerala confirmed that Coca-Cola had caused severe damage to the ecology of Plachimada by over-exploiting the water resources and causing severe water shortage in the area.

Yet Coca-Cola maintains that these charges are false and that, in fact, the company is the one that has been victimized by the political “tug of war” with state elections expected next year.

“There have been many committees, many experts, many reports – in fact – some sponsored by the Kerala government itself, which have come out and said that we have no connection with the local water issues,” says Kamlesh Kumar Sharma, Senior manager of Public Affairs at Coca-Cola in India.

Indeed, there are scientific studies which support the company’s position. In 2003 and 2007 the Central Groundwater Board concluded that the plant was not depleting groundwater. In 2008, the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Delhi found chemicals like zinc and boron present in water samples around Plachimada, but experts at the Institute say these could not have come from the plant.

“We found that the source areas are away from the plant site,” says Professor A.K. Ghosain, an expert at the Institute. “So the only possibility is that these sources can be in the form of some dump. There is no possibility of something coming from the plant site and moving in that direction.”

Yet this has no effect on the protestors at Plachimada, who are set to continue their campaign against Coca-Cola.

“We will continue our agitation till our demands are met, beginning with the formal closing of the plant, plus compensating the victims and prosecuting the Coca-Cola company,” says Vilayodi Venugopal from the Anti-Coca-Cola Agitation Committee. “We also demand that laws are brought in to ensure that the local government has ultimate control over local resources.”