Arrogance and Impunity–Coca-cola in India

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In what can only be characterized as arrogance
and impunity, we are learning that
Coca-Cola and Pepsi have continued to sell
soft drinks in India with dangerously high
levels of pesticides—three years after even
the government of India confirmed that
these products were dangerous.
Perhaps the cola companies know something
that we do not? Are Indians immune
to high levels of pesticides? How long will it
take before the powers that be in India
refuse to allow multinationals to treat Indians
as guinea pigs?
It is time for the cola companies to provide
details of the studies they must have
conducted to convince themselves that the
average Indian can consume pesticides
safely at levels 24 times the average American
and European. It is difficult to fathom
the business logic of a company that boasts
of having one global standard, yet three
years after being rapped by the Indian government,
continues to sell products in India
without making any improvements.
The pesticides in soft drinks in India is a
classic case of double standards, one for
Americans and Europeans, and another for
Indians. Coca-Cola products made in India
could never be sold in the European Union
markets or the United States. On at least 10
occasions since January 2005, the US Food
and Drug Administration has rejected the
shipment of Coca-Cola products made in
India coming into the US, on the grounds
that they do not conform to US laws and
that they are unsafe for the US public.
Both the cola companies’ excuse that
they have met the (non-existent) norms for
soft drinks in India falls flat in its face. In
this day and age of globalization, standards
are also globalized. The onus is upon the
global companies to provide a product that
is safe for consumers. Period. If a product
is unsafe for Americans, it is also unsafe for
Indians. It is the responsibility of Coca-
Cola and Pepsi to clean out the contaminants
from the raw materials before bringing
it to market.
It is indeed ironic that on the one hand,
these very companies argue for global rules
for trade and corporate investment, but
when challenged for their misdeeds, try to
invoke local and national laws. Unfortunately,
the cola companies’ transgressions
run much deeper in India, both figuratively
and literally.
In various parties of India, from Plachimada
in south India to Mehdiganj in north
India, communities living around Coca-Cola
bottling plants are experiencing severe water
shortages. The communities accuse the
Coca-Cola company of creating water shortages
because of over extraction of water and
pollution of the scarce remaining water.
And the communities have the numbers
to back it up. Tests conducted by the Central
Pollution Control Board, for example,
found excessive levels of lead and cadmium
in all of the Coca-Cola waste it surveyed in
bottling plants across the country, leading
the CPCB to order the Coca-Cola company
to treat its waste as hazardous waste. Prior
to the CPCB study, the Coca-Cola company
was distributing its toxic waste to farmers
around its bottling plants, as fertilizer! Test
results released just two weeks ago have
confirmed that the water is also polluted,
making it unfit for human consumption.
In Plachimada, Kerala, one of Coca-
Cola’s largest bottling plants has been shut
down since March 2004 because of the
intense community opposition to the plant.
The Kerala State Pollution Control Board
has also issued a stop order notice to the
company’s bottling plant because of the
pollution by the plant.
In a highly irresponsible practice, the
Coca-Cola company has located many of its
bottling plants in India in “drought prone”
areas, areas that were already experiencing
severe water crisis. In Rajasthan, for example,
a study by the Central Ground Water
Board found that water tables had dropped
10 meters in just five years since Coca-Cola
began its bottling operations in Kala Dera.
As with the pesticide issue, the Coca-
Cola company has challenged every study
that has been produced implicating it for
its wrongdoings. The company has also
hired a high-priced lobbyist in New Delhi
whose job, according to the International
Herald Tribune, was to “ensure, among
other things, that every government or private
study accusing the company of environmental
harm was challenged by another
The entire life-cycle of Coca-Cola—from
the extraction of water to the delivery of the
pesticide laden product- is wrought with
problems. In India, Coca-Cola uses the slogan
in Hindi—”Life ho toh aisi”—Life
should be like this. We don’t think so.

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