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Coca-Cola Expansion Plan Opposed in Mehdiganj, India

Coca-Cola Expansion Plan Opposed in Mehdiganj, India

Community Seeks Rejection of Coca-Cola's Application

New Delhi, March 7, 2013 - Coca-Cola India's plans to expand its production capacity at its bottling plant in the village of Mehdiganj in the state of Uttar Pradesh have been opposed by local community members and allies.

Coca-Cola has applied to the central and state government to increase its groundwater usage from the current 50,000 cubic meters annually to 250,000 cubic meters annually.

The company is seeking permission to sink new bore wells that will extract groundwater from depths of 300 meters (its current bore wells are at about 100 meters), and the application claims that Coca-Cola will recharge more water than it uses.

The government has not yet made a decision regarding Coca-Cola's application to expand operations.

Documents from the government, including Coca-Cola's application, were obtained using the Right to Information laws in India. No public notices have been given to the local communities nor any public hearings held regarding Coca-Cola's application to expand its production in the water stressed area.

Coca-Cola's bottling operations in Mehdiganj have been the subject of intense public protests since 2003 and the emerging details of Coca-Cola's planned expansion have anguished many community members who hold Coca-Cola responsible for water shortages through over extraction and pollution. Mehdiganj is an agrarian area and farmers use the same depleting groundwater resource to meet all their water needs.

In a letter written to the Central Ground Water Authority and the Uttar Pradesh State Pollution Control Board, the two government agencies responsible for granting the license, Lok Samiti and the India Resource Center have asked the authorities to reject Coca-Cola's application for expansion and to shut down the current operations immediately to ease the water problems in the area.

Groundwater resources in the Arajiline block, where the Coca-Cola factory is located, have been declared as "critical" by the Central Ground Water Authority in 2009. The area's groundwater resources were in "safe" category when Coca-Cola started operations in 1999, and the rapid decline in ground water levels correspond directly to Coca-Cola's operations.

A March 2012 report commissioned by the Central Ground Water Board, the primary central government agency for monitoring groundwater in India, described Coca-Cola's groundwater withdrawal in Mehdiganj under current conditions as "excess", validating the community concerns. The report was commissioned as a result of the campaign against Coca-Cola's operations in Mehdiganj.

In addition to over-extraction of groundwater, Coca-Cola is also guilty of polluting groundwater resources around its bottling plants in India and it continues to this day. In 2003, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the primary central government agency for monitoring pollution in India, tested the waste from nine Coca-Cola bottling plants and found that all nine were violating the hazardous waste laws of India. CPCB found that the waste from all nine bottling plants had exceeded levels of lead, cadmium or chromium. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola was distributing its toxic waste to farmers around its bottling plants, as fertilizer. The company stopped this practice when ordered to do so by the CPCB after the study.

In the case of Mehdiganj, CPCB found excessive levels of cadmium and chromium in the waste from Coca-Cola bottling plant that it had tested. Subsequently, two others tests conducted by other groups (in 2008 and 2010) have also found contamination in and around Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Mehdiganj, including heavy metals.

Most recently, in 2011, Coca-Cola has once again been found to be in violation of pollution norms, in Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, where heavy metals were detected by the state pollution control board.

Coca-Cola's rainwater harvesting programs in India-which started only after the protests - are lackluster and do not work adequately. Coca-Cola has continually misrepresented the science and logic behind its water conservation projects to make fantastical claims of "water neutrality", and the company's claims are nothing more than greenwash to deflect attention away from the water crisis it has caused in Mehdiganj and other parts of India.

One of India's largest NGOs, the Energy and Resources Institute described Coca-Cola's rainwater harvesting structures in 2008 as "dilapidated" and cast doubt on the company's claims of having achieved "water neutrality." The Central Ground Water Board also looked at Coca-Cola's rainwater harvesting projects in Mehdiganj in 2012, and stated that Coca-Cola's rainwater harvesting projects in Mehdiganj "don't have any bearing on the pumping of water being carried out by the factory."

Even Coca-Cola company officials at the bottling plant in Mehdiganj have admitted failure of their much touted rainwater harvesting initiatives, telling the Central Ground Water Board in 2012 that "its desired impact is not visible in the area."

Coca-Cola's continued insistence that it replaces the water that it uses - with no actual measurements and with no regard for the localized nature of watersheds - is outlandish. "If Coca-Cola is so confident that it harvests more water than it uses, then why not use rainwater alone to meet all its water needs?", said Nandlal Master of Lok Samiti, a local group that has documented Coca-Cola's dysfunctional water conservation projects in the area and led the campaign against Coca-Cola.

In response to the campaigns in India, Coca-Cola has been forced to significantly alter its water management practices around the world, including new guidelines for siting new or expanding plants that would "consider the health of local watersheds." Clearly, with its application to expand operations in a rapidly depleting, critical aquifer, Coca-Cola is not walking its talk. Instead, Coca-Cola is thinking solely from its business continuity perspective, regardless of how much further hardship will be caused to the thousands of people who depend on the same watershed to meet all their water needs, including for livelihoods.

"With such a rapidly depleting aquifer, it is better to err on the side of caution. Allowing Coca-Cola to mine for water from deep depths will very likely mean that there is no water for future generations. This goes against the principles of sustainable development. Instead of relying on Coca-Cola's dubious water recharging claims, the right thing to do would be to not allow further excessive groundwater use in the first place. Coca-Cola's expansion must be rejected," said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center.

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