Resisting Coke: No Pulp Fiction
Over a dozen communities have been directly affected by the activities of bottling plants owned by Coca Cola
India. Water quality has degraded, toxic waste has been dumped, land has been illegally occupied, people protesting these
activities in a non-violent fashion in public spaces have been beaten up and allegedly bribes have been paid.
But following its glorious tradition of reporting, the Wall Street Journal can only find it interesting
to write about individual glory and guts of an activist taking on this large company and about the company’s drop in
profits. The people who are affected and their concerns are deemed unimportant. Uninteresting.
In its article, Wall Street Journal describes the work of Amit Srivastava, as if he is a lone ranger either
single handedly harassing a company or raising questions pertinent to justice – depending on your perspective.
But Amit, perhaps, might not see it that way – rather he might describe his work as supportive of the
thousands of citizens of communities that have found it increasingly difficult to sustain their livelihoods with degrading
water quality, who have found it difficult to sustain their lives, with potable water becoming less accessible. He might describe
his role as bringing the concerns of communities who feel exploited by Coca Cola to the citizens of the USA where Coca Cola
is based, to the shareholders of Coca Cola, and to the community that consumes Coca Cola products oblivious of how its production
affects these communities.
He might possibly describe his role as a herald perhaps, strengthening the voices of people whose genuine concerns
might never have been heard by a world chasing ever increasing profit margins and growth rates. Voices of communities that
have been organizing a relay fast near the bottling plant in Plachimada, Kerala that has lasted over 1000 days. Voices being
threatened by local thugs who have circumstantially been linked to Coca Cola. Non-violent protests in public places that have
been attacked by Coca Cola security.
Amit probably does not see his role as sullying the reputation of Coca Cola just because he feels like it. And
surely, he does not travel from campus to college campus giving seminars just so that some people serving as executives for
Coca Cola have a more difficult job. He is in fact bringing to focus Coca Cola’s business ethics in India – ethics
and policies that local communities have been protesting for over two years but that which would not have been highlighted
in the US media otherwise.
However, in describing this as ‘he said, she said’, the Wall Street Journal seems to have forgotten
what is being said, why it is being said and the communities who are at the center of this. It ignores serious charges of
bribery and verdicts of corruption against Coca Cola. It does not see merit in reporting the High Court of the state of Uttar
Pradesh has fined Coca Cola over USD 180000 for misreporting accounts and evading taxes and that Coca Cola has not yet paid
these fines. It finds it uninteresting that the Coca Cola bottling plant has been built on encroached land, and that the head
of the village council has been suspended for allegedly accepting bribes for this purpose.
It presents this story as a process that has sullied the reputation of Coca Cola, causing much inconvenience
to the company and focuses on the efforts of the company’s public relation exercise. That the company has done little
or nothing to redress its behavior and sincerely resolve the problems of the communities it is affecting is clearly unimportant.
It is enough for the company to say that it is no longer dumping its effluents in the fields – and it was not toxic
anyways. That an investigative team by British Broadcasting Corporation found it toxic and another independent team validated
those analyses is not important. That it currently dumps its wastes into the river Ganga or into the land of some conniving
private landholder is not important.
And nowhere in this story is the central question of water raised. Nowhere does the article identify that communities
in India are fighting on the issue of the right to water, as guaranteed to communities in India, and practices by a company
that continues to draw these extremely large volumes. That these communities are facing severe water shortage while a company
rakes in millions in merely glossed over.
A story describing a lone ranger taking on a powerful corporation is certainly more fetching. Unfortunately,
this is not such a story. This is a story of thousands of people in India protesting against the unethical practices of a
company that they believe is stealing their water and dumping its externalities on their communities. This is not a story
against Coca Cola, but multiple local campaigns across India protesting the activities of Coca Cola, Pepsi and any other entity
that dumps its externalities on local communities. It is a more complex story, not given to being described as David versus
But that is a vignette of the story, in case you want to know.