Which is better Limca or Sprite

On their global triumphal march, cola drinks have also established themselves in India - with fatal consequences for the water balance of all things. Since the production of one liter of Coca-Cola consumes nine liters of water, the wells in the vicinity of the production and bottling plants are drying out more and more frequently. The farmers are beginning to defend themselves against this, and especially the women, who often have to carry drinking water over long distances.

SINCE October 23, 1993, Coca-Cola has been back. In the course of globalization, the beverage multinational, which had been banned from India in 1977, was able to regain a foothold on the subcontinent. At the same time as Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, the second major US soft drink manufacturer, also set up shop in India. Today both companies operate a total of around 90 factories. They are called "filling systems", but the term "water pumping stations" would be more appropriate.

The 52 plants from Coca-Cola and the 38 from Pepsi-Cola pump huge amounts of groundwater out of the ground in a completely uncontrolled manner. Each of these systems uses between 1 million and 1.5 million liters of water per day - a total of around 40 billion liters per year.

The soft drink companies are a threat in three ways. First, the enormous water consumption leads to the loss of drinking water. Second, the plants produce a lot of toxic waste. Third, the soft drinks are harmful to health. That is why the Indian parliament recently set up a commission to investigate the level of pesticide residues in soft drinks.

For over a year the women in Plachimada - in the district of Palakkat (Kerala) - have been fighting against the operators of Coca-Cola with sit-ins and demonstrations. “Today the women of Plachimada have to walk for miles to get drinking water. While they are carrying the water home on foot, the coca trucks loaded with soft drinks come towards them, ”writes Virenda Kumar in the daily newspaper Mathrubhumi[1]. The cola company consumes more than a million liters of water every day - 9 liters of water are required to produce 1 liter of Coca-Cola alone.

Shortly after the Coca-Cola factory opened, the women of Plachimada founded the Adivasi[2]belong to a protest movement. In March 2000 the Panchayat had[3]a license for the production of soft drinks (Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite, Limca, Thums Up, Kinley Soda and Maaza) was issued, with the condition that the groundwater was only pumped with diesel pumps. But the company had already started illegally extracting water from six newly drilled wells using particularly powerful electric pumps. As the locals report, the company pumped around 1.5 million liters out of the ground every day. The water table sank from 45 to 150 meters.

But Coca-Cola not only “stole” a considerable amount of the groundwater from the population, it also polluted what little clean water was left to local residents. Because the residual waste was flushed with the production wastewater into the dried out wells that were left on the factory premises. Previously, Coca-Cola had simply dumped its waste outside the facility, which was then washed into the rice fields, canals and wells during the rainy season.

The lowering of the groundwater level has dried up 260 wells that had been drilled by the authorities to provide drinking water for the population and water for the fields. In the state of Kerala, which is also known as the “rice chamber” of India because of its fertile and humid areas, agricultural yields have now declined by 10 percent. Even more serious, however, is the fact that Coca-Cola distributes its toxic waste as free fertilizer to the farmers in the area. Tests have shown that the garbage contains extremely high doses of cadmium and lead.

Representatives of the indigenous peoples and farmers also complained about the pollution of the water. They demand the protection of their traditional drinking water sources, the conservation of ponds and other water reservoirs, the maintenance of waterways and canals, but also the rationing of drinking water.

When the Panchayat of Plachimada asked Coca-Cola for detailed information about the production process, the company refused to provide information. When the local council quickly withdrew his license, Coca-Cola tried to bribe the chairman of the Panchayat with 300 million rupees (5.4 million euros) - without success.

Although the local council has canceled the Coca-Cola Group's license to draw water, the company still enjoys the goodwill of the government of the state of Kerala. Coca-Cola even donated 2 million rupees (36,000 euros) in subsidies to the latter as part of its industrial funding. Every cola company was able to collect similar sums from the state government. And that for a soft drink product that, unlike traditional Indian drinks such as lassi, panna and others, does not contain any nutrients.

The fact that cola drinks prevail over healthier local products on the “thirst market” has another side effect. As a sweetener, the industry is increasingly relying on corn syrup, which has a high fructose content. However, maize is a staple food, especially for the poorer sections of the population. Today, 30 percent of the corn harvest is used as raw material for the production of industrial cattle feed and fructose juice. This in turn reduces the demand for much healthier traditional sweeteners such as gur and khandsari, obtained from sugar cane. Another farming branch is threatened existentially. So the production of Cola and Pepsi has far-reaching implications for the food chain and for the economy as a whole. The matter is by no means over with the filling of the bottles.

In 2003 the health officer of Plachimada warned the population that the water was no longer potable. But the women knew that for a long time. Instead of drawing water from local wells, they were already migrating to more distant springs. Coca-Cola actually managed to create water shortages in what was actually a water-rich environment. But the women of Plachimada did not want to come to terms with this "hydropiracy". They organized sit-in strikes at the company's gates.

The movement founded by the Adivasi women sparked a wave of sympathy both domestically and around the world. On February 17, 2004, the Kerala Prime Minister had to close the Coca-Cola facility under increasing pressure from the movement and the acute water shortage that had meanwhile led to a drought.

The Rainbow Alliance, which arose out of the activities of women, became politically important and eventually also supported by the Panchayat. The Perumatty Town Council also filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola with the Kerala Supreme Court.

The court ruled in favor of women. On December 16, 2003, Judge Balakrishnana Nair ruled that Coca-Cola must end the plunder of Plachimada water reserves: “The common good is based on the assumption that certain resources such as air, water and forests are so important to all of humanity that it would be utterly unjust if they became private property. The resources mentioned are a gift from nature and should be available to everyone, regardless of their social status.

It is up to the government to protect these resources for the needs of the whole population instead of allowing their private use for commercial reasons […]. Our judicial system - based on English Common Law - has made the protection of the common good a principle in its jurisprudence. The state is the manager of all natural resources, which by their nature are intended for general use. The entire public should benefit from the coasts, rivers and streams, the air and the forests. The state as administrator is under the legal obligation to protect these natural resources [...]. "

This judgment makes it clear that water is a public good that the general public has to dispose of. The state and its authorities must act as administrators of natural resources. The state must fulfill its obligation and protect the groundwater from excessive exploitation. If he does not do this, he is in breach of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees everyone the right to life. The Apex Court, India's highest court, has stressed on several occasions that Article 21 also covers the right to clean air and unpolluted water.

Even if there is no law directly related to the abstraction of groundwater, it follows from this interpretation that the Panchayat and the state in general must protect groundwater from excessive exploitation. Accordingly, the Kerala Supreme Court ruled that Coca-Cola must stop using groundwater for its production within a month of the verdict being pronounced.

The protest against Coca-Cola is now supported by lawyers, parliamentarians, scientists and writers. The movement is likely to spread to other regions where Coca-Cola and Pepsi produce.

There has been a Coca-Cola factory in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, since 1999. Since then, the groundwater level has dropped from 12 to 37.5 meters. In Mehdiganj, a village 20 kilometers from the holy city of Varanasi (Benares), the villagers are protesting against the production methods of the Coca-Cola factory, which has also been in operation since 1999. In the village, the water table has fallen by twelve meters and the soil around the factory is polluted with toxins.

Coca-Cola has also permanently polluted land and water in Singhchancher, a village in Ballia district (west of Utar Pradesh). And protest movements are now forming everywhere. But the local governments usually react with violence. The most famous activist, Siddharaj Dodda, was arrested during a peaceful march in October 2004.

Drying out the wells increases the risk of pesticide pollution. The Rajasthan High Court has banned the sale of Coca-Cola and Pepsi products as both companies refuse to publish an ingredient list. There has long been evidence that Coca-Cola and Pepsi drinks contain pesticides.[4]

Both large companies sued the Indian Supreme Court against the Rajasthan ruling, but the latter dismissed their suit and also requested that the production process be disclosed. This means that soft drinks are initially banned in this region.

According to a 1999 study by the All India Coordinate Research Project on Pesticide Residue (AICRP), 60 percent of all food on the market was contaminated with pesticides, with 14 percent being well above the permitted level. Such numbers dispel the myth that multinational corporations are more serious about things like safety and reliability than municipalities or local governments.

It is precisely this prejudice against public goods and services that has contributed to making the privatization of natural resources acceptable. This example shows that privatization is no guarantee that you will get water of perfect quality at reasonable prices.

On January 20, 2005 human chains formed in front of all Indian Coca-Cola and Pepsi factories. The demonstrators asked the "hydropirates" to leave the country. The Plachimada case showed that the voice of the people can indeed prevail against private companies.

The movement for the conservation of water reserves is discovering other issues. Recently, it has also been about dams and dams - about the major projects with which the entire river system of the Indian peninsula is to be changed.[5]The protests are also directed against privatization projects funded by the World Bank or against the privatization of the water supply in Delhi.[6]But water theft is not just an Indian phenomenon, it is a global phenomenon.

German by Elisabeth Wellershaus

* Head of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, India; Author of “The Battle for Blue Gold”, Zurich (Rotpunktverlag) 2003; “Robbed Harvest”, Zurich (Rotpunktverlag) 2004.


1↑ Virenda Kumar, “Open Letter to the Head of Government”, Mathrubhumi, Thiruvanathapuram (Kerala), March 10, 2003.

2↑ The term "Adivasi" is one of the names for the indigenous tribes of India.

3^ Council meeting of a village.

4↑ The drinks contain various pesticides, including DDT. The government commission has decided that these residues are acceptable "within the framework of the legal limitation norms" of India. However, in the Coca-Cola and Pepsi bottles sold in the United States and Europe, there are no traces of pesticide at all.

5^ Arundhati Roy, "The cost of Living", London (Flamingo) 1999.

6↑ A shipyard in Degremont - a subsidiary of the Suez Group - was commissioned to recycle the water. In Delhi, water prices have increased tenfold in recent years.