After eleven years of campaigning by local people suffering from water shortages, state authorities have closed Coca-Cola's bottling plant at Mehdiganj, Uttar Pradesh as a result of people’s movement against land grab, illegal construction and indiscriminate withdrawal of water. It is to be known whether Coca-Cola is doing such things in India. But the closure has triggered international debate on the water policy of Coca-Cola and the extent of its implementation in India. "Coca-Cola's thirst for profits in India have placed its business interests over the well-being of communities and the environment and this is not acceptable as the community of Mehdiganj has shown", said Amit Srivastava of the international campaigning group, India Resource Center.
What are the reasons behind closure of Coca-Cola plant?
In Mehdiganj near Varanasi in Uttarpradesh is mainly an agriculture belt. In 2003 Coca-Cola started its bottling plant with a temporary permit for operation with a production target of 20000 cases per day. By 2009 it has increased ts production to 36000 crates per day without any permit from the authority. Neither had they sought for any groundwater clearance from the CGWA. 1999 Mehdiganj was a safe category block as was assessed by the Central Groundwater Authority. But by 2004 it turned into a critical block in terms of groundwater resource. The third reason is that it had built some constructions on community land which belongs to the Gramsabha. In December 2013, local authorities passed an order to evict Coca-Cola from the illegally occupied land. This followed a ruling by the The Supreme Court of India of 28th January 2011, which stated that any structures built on illegal land would have to be demolished.
Coca-Cola and zero water policy
Coca-Cola advocates for its zero water policy which means that the company will return to the Earth the water they are withdrawing. Coca-Cola has his own water policies and strictly adheres to some activities that include source water surveillance, groundwater recharge in the catchment, and ensure sustainability. It is important for water users to know that there is need to allocate financial resources for the management of the same resources. The Coca cola plant should have used money to help in the recharging of the aquifers where they were getting their ground water. The principle of use money to generate should have been applied. Also there was need to have a dual purpose borehole where by some water from another source may be by using rainwater harvesting should been directed into the borehole while at the same time it is being pumped. There should have been a case where there are time when pumping is less than recharging. There should have also been ground water monitoring so as to evaluate the dynamics of the water table for the said aquifer. It is a demonstration that big corporates like Coca Cola have to look beyond their own practices and get engaged with broader catchment level resource management. No matter what their own practices are, or the terms of their legal licence, they will lose their social licence to operate if resources become depleted. This is a very interesting story indeed, showing the need for multi-nationals like Coca Cola to increase their focus on the creation of shared or societal value rather than shareholder value. Certainly, producers of goods that are generally perceived as unhealthy and 'superfluous' will increasingly be confronted with the question of how ethical it is that they make use of scarce resources.
Doesn't Coca-Cola adhere to the best practices in natural resource management in the developed part of the world? Then why they have given a miss in India?
Whether Coca-Cola had adhered to best practices or not is immaterial. No catchment has infinite resource. Artificial recharge is something like allocating surface runoff into groundwater storage. But total water resource of a watershed remains the same. Groundwater recharge always depletes environmental flow or other natural allocation of water. What Coca-Cola or other beverage factories do is export of water from the catchment (watershed) to the outside market. This consequently depletes the total water resource of the catchment.
If large companies that depend on scarce resources want to keep their 'license to operate', they need to consider what they can do to help reduce overall resource scarcity, beyond their own product chain or sector. Reducing its own ecological footprint is no longer enough; industry needs to also help competing users of scarce resources to become more efficient - especially when operating in poor communities where little funding is available for investments in e.g improved irrigation systems.
The company is also the target of a major community campaign in Kala Dera in Rajasthan where the community is seeking closure of the bottling plant due to rapidly depleting ground water.
Most recently, Coca-Cola's plans to build a new factory in Charba in Uttarakhand were defeated almost as soon as the proposal was made public in 2013, testament to how quickly and efficiently communities can organize and network in India against problematic companies such as Coca-Cola.
Amit Srivastava promised: "We will ensure that Coca-Cola will face heightened scrutiny anywhere it plans to operate in India because the track record of the company is dismal."