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Protest against the Coca-Cola bottling plant at Mehdiganj. Photo: India Resource Center.

Protest against the Coca-Cola bottling plant at Mehdiganj. Photo: India Resource Center.

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  • The Coca-Cola bottling plant at Mehdiganj. Photo: India Resource Center.
    The Coca-Cola bottling plant at Mehdiganj. Photo: India Resource Center.
  • Waste water from the Coca-Cola bottling plant at Mehdiganj. Photo: India Resource Center.
    Waste water from the Coca-Cola bottling plant at Mehdiganj. Photo: India Resource Center.

India: Coca-Cola eviction from 'land-grab' site imminent

Oliver Tickell

29th January 2014

Local authorities in Varanasi, India, are preparing to evict Coca-Cola from land that the company is occupying illegally at its bottling plant in Mehdiganj. The eviction is due to take place 'within days'.

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?

The action to evict Coca-Cola comes as the result of an order (in Hindi) passed by the Tehsildar, the local revenue officer, in December 2013 after a official investigation carried out at the insistence of local villagers. The company was also fined Rs.124,590, about US$2,000.

The order issued by the Tehsildar also allows for a police force to accompany the local authorities to evict Coca-Cola. According to recent reports, the eviction is now imminent. 

Subordinate Revenue Administrative Officer Manoj Rai told reporters that he plans to "implement the demolition orders in a couple of days. There is no question of not following the order."

The land occupied illegally by Coca-Cola - approximately 2,500 square meters within the premises of its bottling plant - is community owned land and meant for common use by the community.

The use of such land - known as Gram Sabha or Gram Panchayat land - by private parties is prohibited by law.

Coca-Cola's eviction would also mean that the new buildings, completed in 2012 by the British construction company Mott MacDonald, would have to be demolished.

Intense protests since 2003

Coca-Cola's bottling operations in Mehdiganj in Uttar Pradesh have been the subject of intense public protests since 2003 as a result of water shortages - blamed on over-extraction by the company.

There is already intense competition for finite groundwater resources among farmers is this mainly agrarian area 25 km from Varanasi, as well as for growing urban use.

When Coca-Cola started operations in 1999 the area's groundwater resources were considered to be "safe". The rapid decline in ground water levels followed the commencement of Coca-Cola’s operations.

The factory produces 600 bottles of the sweet, fizzy beverage every minute.

The effect was immediate

Local farmers noticed the groundwater dropping almost immediately after Coca-Cola began pumping. Wells in the villages started to run dry, water hand pumps stopped working and ponds in the area also dried up.

Coca-Cola is the single largest user of groundwater in the area by a considerable margin.

In 2009 the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), the government agency for monitoring the status of the country's aquifers, declared groundwater resources in the Arajiline block - where the Coca-Cola factory is located - as "critical".

In March 2012 the CGWA published a report which described Coca-Cola's groundwater withdrawal in Mehdiganj under current conditions as "excessive".

Adding to the problems, 70% of Coca-Cola's annual production occurs between March and June - exactly when the groundwater levels are lowest and water scarcity for the community at its most acute. The company has pumped almost 1 million liters in a single day.

Adding to the problem as little as a quarter of the water pumped is actually used in the end product, and the remainder is discharged as waste.

Expansion plans strongly opposed

Local alarm at declining groundwater only increased when Coca-Cola proposed a five-fold expansion in production at Mehdiganj, applying to the national and state governments to increase its groundwater abstraction from 50,000 to 250,000 cubic meters annually.

The company also sought permission to sink new bore wells that will extract groundwater from depths of 300m - its current bore wells are about 100m deep.

The application claims that Coca-Cola will recharge more water than it uses and achieve "water neutrality". However local communities are sceptical of the claim and strongly oppose the application due to the declining groundwater in the area.

Official documents concerning the proposal, including Coca-Cola’s application itself, were only obtained using the Right to Information laws. No public notices were issued to local communities, and no public hearings were held.

Hazardous waste laws violated

In 2003 India's Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the government agency for monitoring pollution, tested the waste from nine Coca-Cola bottling plants and found that all were violating hazardous waste laws.

CPCB found that the waste from all nine bottling plants had exceeded the maximum permitted levels of lead, cadmium and chromium.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola was distributing its organic wastes to farmers around its bottling plants for use as fertilizer - a practice which ceased following publication of CPCB's report.

However local campaigners allege that the toxic wastes are still finding their way into groundwater and causing contamination with heavy metals.

Water neutrality

The CGWB examined Coca-Cola’s rainwater harvesting projects in Mehdiganj in 2012, and concluded that they "don’t have any bearing on the pumping of water being carried out by the factory."

Coca-Cola company officials at the bottling plant in Mehdiganj admitted to CGWA in 2012 that the projects' "desired impact is not visible in the area."

However the company still insists that it replaces the water that it uses - despite having, according the India Resource Centre, "no actual measurements" to prove it. This made the claim "outlandish", the campaign group said.

"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?", asks Nandlal Master of Lok Samiti, a local group that has documented Coca-Cola's water conservation projects in the area.

All dressed up and nowhere to go

Coca-Cola has been unable to begin operations in the expanded facility because it lacks all the required permits - as a result of local objections Nandlal Master of Lok Samiti, the community group leadiing the local campaign, said:

"We are looking forward to reclaiming the community-owned land that belongs rightfully to the people. We will not rest until Coca-Cola is evicted."

The Supreme Court of India has also raised serious concerns regarding illegal land grabs of community owned land. In a ruling of 28th January 2011, the Court made it clear that any structures built on illegal land would have to be demolished.

"We are of the opinion that such kind of blatant illegalities must not be condoned. Even if the appellants have built houses on the land in question they must be ordered to remove their constructions, and possession of the land in question must be handed back to the Gram Panchayat.

"Regularizing such illegalities must not be permitted because it is Gram Sabha land which must be kept for the common use of villagers of the village."

The Supreme Court also directed State Governments to

"prepare schemes for eviction of illegal / unauthorized occupants of Gram Sabha / Gram Panchayat / Poramboke / Shamlat land and these must be restored to the Gram Sabha / Gram Panchayat for the common use of villagers of the village."

India Resource Centre campaigners wrote to the State Government of Uttar Pradesh on 15th January to take prompt action based on the Supreme Court directive.

Coca-Cola - zero-tolerance for land grabs

In November 2013, Oxfam, one of UK's largest charity organizations announced that Coca-Cola had committed to "zero tolerance" for land grabs in its supply chain.

Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, an international campaigning group, said:

"Coca-Cola's land grab in India, as confirmed by government authorities, makes a mockery of their so called 'zero tolerance' commitment towards land grabs.

"If Coca-Cola is serious, they should immediately return the community-owned land to the village council, as demanded by the government authorities."

 


 

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

For more information and updates, visit www.IndiaResource.org.

 

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