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Indefinite Vigil Against Coca-Cola in India

Indefinite Vigil Against Coca-Cola in India

Community Demands Immediate Closure of Coca-Cola Bottling Plant

San Francisco: The community of Mehdiganj in northern India has launched an indefinite vigil against a Coca-Cola bottling plant today, demanding that the plant be permanently shut down.

Nearly five hundred community members set up a large tent in front of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Mehdiganj, near the Indian holy city of Varanasi. The protesters have declared that they will carry on the protest night and day until the plant is shut down.

Accusing the company of creating severe water shortages and polluting the water and land around the bottling plant, the community is demanding the closure of the bottling plant prior to the summer months, when the plant is expected to reach peak production capacity.

"The communities are experiencing severe water shortages already and a company like Coca-Cola should not be allowed to extract water from the groundwater resource, particularly in summer when water is scarce. The government should intervene immediately and order the plant to shut down", said Nandlal Master of the local community organization, Lok Samiti, the key organizer of the protests.

According to community members, groundwater levels have dropped more than 12 meters since Coca-Cola's started operations. The results have been severe water shortages affecting at least 20 villages surrounding Coca-Cola's bottling plant. The communities also hold Coca-Cola responsible for polluting the water and soil, which have affected the agricultural production as well as public health in the area. Government authorities and the courts have also ruled that Coca-Cola has acquired agricultural land illegally and evaded taxes in the area.

The Coca-Cola bottling plant in Mehdiganj, which draws nearly 250,000 liters of water per day according to some estimates, has been the target of the community for nearly five years. Thousands of people have protested the plant in the past, including a major protest on November 24, 2004 in which the police resorted to violence and over 300 people were detained.

Interestingly, a Coca-Cola company official, Mr. Kalyan Ranjan, announced on January 6, 2006 that "There is no agitation in Mehdiganj" and that "Coca-Cola is an integral part of the social fabric of Mehdiganj." The Coca-Cola company officials have acknowledged the presence of a strong campaign against the bottling plant in the past, and the latest announcement denying the presence of community opposition is viewed as a new public relations strategy by the company.

"We reject the notion that a public relations strategy by Coca-Cola will solve the growing crisis in India," said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, an international campaigning organization working directly with community groups in India affected by Coca-Cola's practices. "Just saying there is not campaign against them will not make it go away. The international campaign to put pressure on the company will continue to grow until Coca-Cola admits the liabilities it continues to incur in India."

The Coca-Cola company is the target of many communities in India who have held it responsible for creating severe water shortages and pollution. One of Coca-Cola's largest bottling plants in India, in Plachimada in south India, has been shut down since March 2004 due to community pressure.

The campaigns in India enjoy widespread support internationally, and Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the just concluded World Water Forum in Mexico came under attack by campaigners as a public relations move. Coca-Cola's relationship with water was described as "unsustainable".

Colleges and universities in the US and UK are also campaigning to revoke contracts with the Coca-Cola company until they meet the demands of the communities in India. On January 1, 2006, the University of Michigan suspended its contract with the Coca-Cola company.

Touting rainwater harvesting initiatives is central to Coca-Cola's public relations strategy in India. Although Coca-Cola claims that rainwater harvesting returns a "substantial" part of their water use, when asked how much rainwater was harvested in Mehdiganj, Mr. Kalayan Ranjan of Coca-Cola announced that 7 million liters of water was harvested last year. Even taking a conservative figure of 250,000 liters of water per day that Coca-Cola extracts, the recharge figure given by the Coca-Cola company doesn't even meet the company's water needs in Mehdiganj for a month. "Coca-Cola's claim of substantially returning the water they use through rainwater harvesting is plain hogwash," said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center.

In the past, Coca-Cola has claimed that its operations in Mehdiganj have even resulted in increasing the water table levels.

"Rainwater harvesting is simply not enough to balance Coca-Cola's water needs. If they believe in what they say, let them use only rainwater to meet their water needs," said Nandlal Master of Lok Samiti.

Residents of over 30 villages will continue to take shifts in maintaining the permanent vigil outside Coca-Cola's bottling plant.

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