how the world sees america

"Coca-Colanization" or "Just Bitter Water" in Kerala Plant

Note: Please upgrade your Flash plug-in to view our enhanced content.

Vilayedi Venugopal, the leader of the Anti-Coca-Cola Agitation Committee, has been protesting against the Coke plant in Plachimada, Kerala for the past five years, even though its been shut since 2004. He lives 12km away, but comes regularly to sit in a thatched hut just outside the sprawling complex, which he calls “the exploitative arm of American Empire.” But do the villagers living right next to the plant also link Coke to America?

Plachimada glows green with rice patties. These soggy fields form the backbone of the local economy and are sustained by a vital supply of ground and rainwater. In 2002, two years after Coca-Cola opened its factory, relative drought hit the area. Fields and wells reportedly started drying up, and the water that remained “started tasting bitter,” local farmer Shakti Vel tells me. Coke denies responsibility, but locals took to the streets.

Villagers started protesting in front of the plant in 2002 accusing it of depleting and contaminating their water supply. Within months, national organizations got involved, calling for the closure of the factory. Coke continues to deny responsibility for the changes in water supply, backing their arguments with state-sponsored scientific studies. But they stopped major operations at the US$16 million plant in 2004. Now massive beehives sag off of ceiling lights and just a few contract security agents guard the entrance to the desolate complex.

backpack.jpg
Protest sign hanging outside Vilayedi's Anti-Coca-Cola hut.
But the protests outside continue. Eyes closed, protest leader Vilayedi raises his voice as he lists American injustices around the world: “environmental destruction everywhere for money…human rights abuses…war.” He never trusted Coca-Cola. Fifteen men and a few elderly women around him nod in approval. Outside their hut is a plastic sign with a sinister-looking eagle, an American flag and the words "No Coke, No Pepsi." Is Coca-Cola related to all these other American abuses, I ask. The response comes back unanimous: “They are all one in this.”

Leaving the protest hut I head about 200 meters off the main road to the community directly adjacent to the Coke factory. A group of 15-year-old boys play cricket beside a nine-foot concrete wall topped with rusty barbed wire separating them from the Coke factory. They’ve stacked up rocks on one corner of the wall so they can peer over it. They’ve always been curious about the factory.

During its construction, one of the boys tells me, “I was very happy because my father was getting work and there was more money.” Chandran Kunju, a local farmer adds, “there were more trucks and more stores opened to sell to them…It developed this place...[and] was good.” The boys tell me they were dying to know what went on in there, but were never allowed to enter for security reasons, although Coke representative Ameer Shahul says the company encourages "anyone and everyone to visit."

But then came the water problems, the protests, and the closure. There were more jobs building the factory than working in it. Locals grew disgruntled. Only 450 jobs in a town of 40,000 were provided directly by Coca-Cola (though again Ameer notes more became available indirectly). When the water shortage came and the plant closed, the jobs vanished. These boys say they were angry with Coke for not staying in Plachimada, creating jobs, and helping with the water situation.

What about America? Chandran replies, “In what way is it [the Coke factory] American? Indians work there….We drink Coke.” Deva Tal, one of the cricket-playing boys, says, “Still I want to live in America.” He criticizes America’s wars in detail, but not everything that comes from America. “This is a bad Coke factory,” he says, but he still drinks soda made elsewhere -- though more often 7-Up so as not to irk his mother. He doesn’t associate this plant with America and says he’s happy to have a Coke factory here as long as "it does not poison our water....That is all,” he says.

Join Monthly Mailing List | Del.icio.us | Digg | Facebook

Comments (21)

BV:

Amar C Bakshi has an interesting agenda behind his stories. Please read them all and make a judgement. Unfortunately, not many people have the time and patience. The people who are thinking in extreme ways one way or the other catch on to his disturbed view and let their extreme views be head through the comment. I am not at all surprised by Washington post paying him to write for them. What sells more is better.

Sameer:

The second post above under my name, was NOT posted by me. I don't know who posted it. I have not been to Plachimada, but my brother-in-law has been there for a protest.

I had merely posted my observations about the article here, because it seems to be a bit biased, ignoring some important points.

It's interesting that the village panchayat withdrew the license given to the Coke factory, and the High Court upheld their claim that the local council had no jurisdiction.
The 'hue & cry' was started by a Plachimada tribal leader Mayilamma who saw on her farm land near the village, the groundwater table drop from 150 to 500 feet.

The factory there also distributed slurry, billed as "fertiliser", to local farmers. This was later found to contain carcinogens.

Sahil, what that about an ETP? What's that?
And good story. The 'Guardian'says - http://business.guardian.co.uk/story/0,3604,1016103,00.html

Sameer:

The second post above under my name, was NOT posted by me. I don't know who posted it. I have not been to Plachimada, but my brother-in-law has been there for a protest.

I had merely posted my observations about the article here, because it seems to be a bit biased, ignoring some important points.

It's interesting that the village panchayat withdrew the license given to the Coke factory, and the High Court upheld their claim that the local council had no jurisdiction.
The 'hue & cry' was started by a Plachimada tribal leader Mayilamma who saw on her farm land near the village, the groundwater table drop from 150 to 500 feet.

The factory there also distributed slurry, billed as "fertiliser", to local farmers. This was later found to contain carcinogens.

Sahil, what that about an ETP? What's that?
And good story. The 'Guardian'says - http://business.guardian.co.uk/story/0,3604,1016103,00.html

Sameer:

The second post above under my name, was NOT posted by me. I don't know who posted it. I have not been to Plachimada, but my brother-in-law has been there for a protest.

I had merely posted my observations about the article here, because it seems to be a bit biased, ignoring some important points.

It's interesting that the village panchayat withdrew the license given to the Coke factory, and the High Court upheld their claim that the local council had no jurisdiction.
The 'hue & cry' was started by a Plachimada tribal leader Mayilamma who saw on her farm land near the village, the groundwater table drop from 150 to 500 feet.

The factory there also distributed slurry, billed as "fertiliser", to local farmers. This was later found to contain carcinogens.

Sahil, what that about an ETP? What's that?
And good story. The 'Guardian'says - http://business.guardian.co.uk/story/0,3604,1016103,00.html

Raja:

Stanley, that is a good comment. You hit the core of the issue. A walk in the village without any local guides (most of the local guides are unemployed people who are part of the agitation to make a living) would suggest that there is a constant fund flow from Europe and even the US to the agitators. That is why these agitators are able to sustain it for a longer time. Local newspapers keep reporting as and when fund flow to the agitators happen, becuase it is another facet of globalisation. Last month I read a report suggesting a fund of one million rupees has reached the agitators. I wonder how come Amar missed these interesting part.

It would be interesting to know how Americans send money to defeat American companies working in foreign soil. And how American activist groups (which support and extend fund to the agitators) and American companies fight it out in foreign soil. This is the least explained facet of globalisation.

And mind you, water availability, water quality etc. are not the issue here. The real issue is how an American company can be learnt a lesson. That is what the agitators and their supporters are working hard for.

God Bless Them. God Bless Kerala.

Stanley George:


These agitations are the only means for some politicians and some political parties to keep themselves alive. And it has nothing to do with the general public. They listen to it, forget it and they continue to use Coke.

These politicians should understand a great fact that Anti Americanism has no place in future, just like communism, it also will go to the dustbin of history.

Coke lived longer than communism and it has more experience!!!!!

Sahil K:

Sameer it was nice to know that you have spent a full day in the nearby village.
Did you try to find WHY the people were not in favour of the Coke plant there?
Did you try to find if the water quality was actually spoilt?
If yes,could you find any reason for the same?
Do you feel all this hue & cry is for the heck of it?
What GOOD Behavior are the folks expecting from Coke?
There is a small story - Once in a village an old lady was shouting that the Land revenue collector was a cheat. Some body asked the lady why she was complaining since she had no land at all and hence no dealing with the collector. She replied that she was saying so "BECAUSE THE WHOLE VILLAGE SAID SO'.
I thought the 'water table depletion' shouting was because Coke was pulling out water from underground aquifers and not recharging the ground water by coca-cola or waste water.
I thought that coke installs the best ETP plant in all their units before commencement of production.
Please comment.

Rob:

It has nothing to do with Coke or America.I guess the concern is the depletion of water in the region.

Similar protests are going on in UP, and in TN.

I live in US now, i see huge protests and concern if there is any contamination in water or any food.

US rejected 1700 varieties of food from India and also from China.

I thiink this has completly blwon out of propotion,

Bakshi has another perrspective and the story angle is different.

The same story could be written in other perspective as well, like hwo vilalgers are sufferring etc

Its upto the readers to decide ...

Rob:

It has nothing to do with Coke or America.I guess the concern is the depletion of water in the region.

Similar protests are going on in UP, and in TN.

I live in US now, i see huge protests and concern if there is any contamination in water or any food.

US rejected 1700 varieties of food from India and also from China.

I thiink this has completly blwon out of propotion,

Bakshi has another perrspective and the story angle is different.

The same story could be written in other perspective as well, like hwo vilalgers are sufferring etc

Its upto the readers to decide ...

Rob:

It has nothing to do with Coke or America.I guess the concern is the depletion of water in the region.

Similar protests are going on in UP, and in TN.

I live in US now, i see huge protests and concern if there is any contamination in water or any food.

US rejected 1700 varieties of food from India and also from China.

I thiink this has completly blwon out of propotion,

Bakshi has another perrspective and the story angle is different.

The same story could be written in other perspective as well, like hwo vilalgers are sufferring etc

Its upto the readers to decide ...

Jeremy:

Wonderful video Amar. These videos belong in art galleries too. They're beautiful!

Sameer:

I spent a day in the nearby village! Very few of them supported this Coca Cola factory, as I said, but they didn't contest the idea of having a Coke factory there if it behaved properly. As for the water, they still were largely complaining about the quality.

RK, thanks for your comment about globalization hitting quick; it's an interesting take and would love to hear more on it.

Sameer:

I wonder why the author did not go to the nearby village and talk to the people there. He had the time to go all the way till the factory, but did not talk to any of the people really affected by this issue.
The opinion of a bunch of kids playing nearby is presented as the opinion of the people. Interesting...

Is it because they are the only ones there who would have supported the Coco Cola factory there?

Is this selective/opinion based reporting? Did the author check and report the quality of the water now that the factory is closed?

Anonymous:

Protests against the Coke plant in Plachimada, Kerala and the subsequent closure of the plant is a FANTASTIC example of Unscientific reasoning, self defeatist attitude and how Kerala lets people like Vilayedi Venugopal & company retard the progress of the state.
Incidentally Kerala is one of the richest states in terms of Natural resources but one of the most back ward in terms of Industrialization because when any multinational company puts up a unit in Kerala it has to be classified as American and destroyed because of what happened in Kuwait or Afghanistan or Iraq. Kerala weeps for the world while it needs most tears for itself.
When Tatas and Birlas and Ambanis want to put up some Industry in Kerala, they are classified as Capitalists and blood suckers of the poor.
The self styled comrades enjoy their ride on the backs of poverty stricken masses. Citizens are motivated to constantly mount campaigns against liberalization, globalization and Westernization.
The resultant effect is a high percentage of unemployment (20%), domestic abuse, alcoholism, and suicides.
All this despite of Kerala having the highest literacy rate in the country(100%), the educated have to go abroad as nurses and technicians and send cash home.
The economy is driven largely by remittances from overseas, which account for about one fifth of the state's income. Remitted money is often spent on huge houses for lucky individuals with relatives abroad rather than on infrastructure development for the community.
While the world moves forward, Kerala moves backwards.

RK:

The problem for India is that it has happened all too quickly. Globalisation did not seep in. It "hit". Those that did not manage to have their pound of flesh, either because they were not able to anticipate the benefits or because they were obdurate and did not want to recognise that the world has changed, found a way to pooh pooh the entire process.

Coke in Kerala, is a classic example of that. For a beverage company to do the kind of damage that is alleged is not possible. Yet the distractors have managed to keep the issue alive. Perhaps, they know how to keep the Indian emotions going.

Anonymous:

The problem is not Coke….The problem is not America.
The problem is identity crisis for people like Venugopal, Sandeep Pandey, Sunita Narain and a host of such people, not only in India but the world over. These people have nothing to offer to the society but they wish to remain in the lime light always.
And America is the right choice for a whipping horse!!!
It is a matter of concern for the entire Human Race --- When intelligent people do foolish talk deliberately …. When those who understand science talk unscientifically ….. When those who are responsible to show the right path to the others deliberately mislead people …. It is a matter of Shame for the entire Human society --- When cheap populist statements are packaged in lies and hurled shamelessly at the masses.
Coca-Cola depletes water table is a ridiculous accusation.
In India the water withdrawal by the entire industrial sector is less then 1% of the total water withdrawn.
How can Industrial activity have any impact at all on the water table depletion?
Extra spice is added to the water table depletion theory by another wild allegation 'polluting the water' in the wells …. One of such comment picked from your blog says
“When I went there the well water was milky white as a result. The bore-wells being used by the factory were pumping so fast and such high quantities that the the soil was breaking down and the residue was polluting the water”

Angad does not know that physical breaking of soil leaves nothing like a residue!! And it has nothing to do with the chemical composition of water.
Some people try to add a venomenous humor by calling a soft drink ‘toilet cleaner’ ….. forgetting that such statements not just reflect their complexes but also the level of bankruptcy of their minds.

x2:

Now all they need to do is drive out the American IT industry as well.

We'll be happy since our jobs won't be outsourced.

And they'll be happy since American companies won't come to India.

Angad:

When I went there the well water was milky white as a result. The bore-wells being used by the factory were pumping so fast and such high quantities that the the soil was breaking down and the residue was polluting the water.

Anonymous:

Coca-Cola should only be used to clean toilets, if you must buy it.

People, do not drink this stuff, don't be stupid.


Ameer Shahul, Coca-Cola:

[Ameer Shahul is the Sr. Public Affairs & Communications Manager of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt Ltd. Here's the statement]

"Coca-Cola has not been responsible for any water depletion or pollution. "

Ameer further adds, The Kerala High Court appointed a nine member Expert Committee (CWRDM) and mandated it to scientifically study the impact on the ground water level being caused by the operation of the Coca-Cola plant. Based on the Expert Committee report, Hon’ble Kerala High Court in its final order (April'05) concluded 'that drying up of the wells and tanks in Plachimada area can not be attributed to the operations of the Plant and that shortage of rainfall is the most significant factor for the fall in the water levels'.

Even with regard to groundwater quality, the following reports comprehensively establish that our plant has not been the cause of water pollution, if there was any, at all

1) November 2002. Well Water Analysis – Inside as well as Outside the plant premises. State Ground Water Board, Kerala analysed 20 groundwater samples from wells located in and around the HCCBPL plant at Palakkad. Salient observations of the analysis are:
• All samples show pH well within the limits. (pH limits: 6.5 to 8.5).
• Regarding Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), most of the wells fall within the maximum limit of 2,000 mg/L.
• There is no observation that the pollution problem, if any, in the area is due to Coca -Cola factory.

2) September 2003. Well Water Analysis – Inside as well as Outside the plant premises. Central Ground Water Board, New Delhi studied ground water conditions in and around the HCCBPL plant at Palakkad. Salient observations of the report:
• TDS was within BIS limits in more than 75% of the monitored wells (total wells monitored – 37 nos; 29 wells TDS found within limits, which is 2,000 mg/L)
• pH within limits in all wells (pH limits: 6.5 to 8.5)
• Heavy Metals (Cd, Cr and Pb) within limits in all wells.

3) February 2004. Kerala State Pollution Control Board submitted an affidavit to Kerala High Court in Feb 2004. The affidavit included analysis of 7 ground water samples from wells located outside the plant. (samples were collected in Aug’03). Salient features of the analysis:

· pH within limits in all samples (pH limits: 6.5 to 8.5)
· One of the Panchayat well exceeded the Cd maximum permissible level of 0.01 mg/L. Cd level in the well showed value of 0.02 mg/L.
· All the other Heavy Metals values (Cd, Cr and Pb) within limits.

Amar:

Another interesting connection to America I didn't mention in this post is how some U.S. colleges halted purchases of Coke in part as a result of protests such as the on in Kerala, which the state got involved in actually trying to ban the sale of Coke and Pepsi. See here:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4776623.stm

And this is something about American universities in all of this:

http://www.foodproductiondaily.com/news/ng.asp?n=65142-coca-cola-image-human-rights

And my next post will be from Coke representative Ameer Shahul which he'd like me to include on the thread.

Post a comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send your comments, questions and suggestions for PostGlobal to Lauren Keane, its editor and producer.