'Depleting' water, 'poisoning' drinks

Posted: Jan 02, 2007 1:56 PM
'Depleting' water, 'poisoning' drinks

For nearly four years a worldwide network of Leftist activists has been trying to blacken the name of The Coca-Cola Company. The purpose of this corporate campaign is to put a halt to ostensibly unjust business practices, particularly at Coke bottling plants in Third World countries. Led by Ray Rogers, a renowned New York-based hired gun for organized labor, the campaign shows no signs of slowing down.

Exactly where Rogers' Campaign to Stop Killer Coke is getting its money is a separate, if intriguing issue. Of concern here is what this money is buying. So far, the finished product, judging from the group's website (www.killercoke.org), appears to be raw demagoguery.

"We believe the evidence shows that Coca-Cola and its corporate network are rife with immorality, corruption and complicity in murder," Rogers proclaims. In case you're wondering, there's no punch line.

The campaign from the start has focused its primary firepower on Colombia. Rogers and his allies have been alleging that local bottlers in that country have collaborated with far-Right paramilitary thugs to harass, torture and murder union organizers. It was in fact a March 2003 ruling by a federal judge in Miami exempting Coca-Cola from liability in a Colombian murder case that triggered the campaign.

But the Killer Coke campaign is charging the company with crimes against humanity elsewhere as well, especially in India. Coke-affiliated bottlers, activists charge, are depleting that country's potable water supply through the manufacture of soft drinks, and to add insult to injury, are selling those drinks with dangerous levels of toxic residue. At least the activists are consistent; they're accusing Pepsi bottlers of the same offenses.

One has to wonder how soft-drink bottlers have managed to sustain far higher levels of production in the U.S. without these adverse effects. Actually, there are some reasons. Unfortunately, "Killer Coke" radicals aren't likely to acknowledge them.

India, not to belabor the point, is not the United States. According to that country's 2001 Census, its total population was 1.03 billion -- and packed into less than 1.3 million square miles. India's registrar-general projects the population by 2035 to soar to 1.46 billion.

At the same time, India's economy is rapidly growing. Its estimated nominal per-capita income (i.e., unadjusted for currency exchange rates) in 2003 was $540, a nearly 40 percent increase over the 1990 figure of $390. A recent report by Goldman, Sachs projects that in terms of Gross Domestic Product, India will have the world's third-largest economy by 2040.

Rising population and income are boosting demand for water in a country that still has far too little of it. India is endowed with at least 15 percent of the world's population, but at most 4 percent of its fresh water. And with potable water treatment technology still primitive by our standards, almost any major corporation with operations there can be made to appear as though it is "depleting" the groundwater.

The soft drink industry, in particular, needs an ample supply of groundwater. "The Coca-Cola Company has a special interest in water," the corporation states on its website (www.cokefacts.com). "We are a hydration company. Every product we sell contains water. Without water, we have no business and it is in the long-term interest of our company to be good stewards of our most critical ingredient."

Killer Coke activists see such words as mere public-relations spin to disguise a systematic depletion of water in impoverished rural areas. "Coca-Cola is culpable, and therefore liable for the serious problems that are affecting the lives of our people," remarks Amit Srivastava, a San Francisco Bay Area activist who runs the India Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group closely allied with Ray Rogers. "The longer the Coca-Cola Company waits to genuinely address the issues in India, the larger their financial liability becomes," he added.

This accusation -- more accurately, a threat -- ignores the necessity of building local good will to maintain long-term profitability. Coca-Cola knows this as well as anyone. Among its partnerships, the company is working with a community in the desert state of Rajasthan to restore a 400-year-old step well. Moreover, it has started three projects to collect and purify rainwater on behalf of local farmers. And it's launched another rainwater project in a village near the city of Pune with the potential to harvest up to 4 million liters of rainwater annually.

It strains the imagination to suggest such projects amount to window dressing to disguise ecosystem destruction.

The charge that Coca-Cola is slowly poisoning the Indian people with pesticide residues in its soft drinks likewise is highly dubious. The main source of information here is an India-based nonprofit group, the Centre for Science and the Environment (CSE). In August 2006, CSE released a study alleging that dozens of samples of 11 soft drinks sold by Coca-Cola and its Pepsi rival contained 27 times the levels of pesticides permissible under food standards proposed by the Indian central government only months earlier.

India's provincial governments have acted especially to the activists' liking. As of this August, a fourth of the country's 28 states had imposed partial or total bans on Coke and Pepsi soft drinks. Yet that very month India's health ministry issued a report refuting the CSE's claims, concluding it had found no evidence of high levels of pesticides in Coca-Cola or Pepsi soft drinks. Indian Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss told parliament that a panel of experts had found the Centre for Science and the Environment report flawed in its methodology and conclusions.

CSE Director Sunita Narain was not pleased. She countered: "It is unfortunate that the minister has decided to toe the company line. The minister of health is clearly more concerned with industrial health -- and not people's health." Not surprisingly, the Indian State of Kerala, which had banned all Coke production and sales, announced in the wake of the release of the ministry report that it would not lift the ban.

It isn't as if Coca-Cola management is unwilling to sit down and negotiate standards. Company officials had agreed to meet with CSE representatives to discuss "how we together might further engage with the Ministry of Health to develop and finalize criteria for pesticide residues and the associated validated testing methodologies." The company also commissioned a nonprofit group, the Energy and Resources Institute, to audit its business practices in India.

The campaign against Coca-Cola in India, put simply, is unproven on both counts. Thankfully, there are sensible voices in that nation who grasp as much, and even more importantly, grasp the pitfalls of politicizing natural resource and health issues resolvable through voluntary negotiation. "Far from being concerned about the safety of their citizens," wrote Barun Mitra in the Hindustan Times, "political leaders find it easy to target soft drink manufacturers, particularly MNCs (multi-national corporations). This is the lowest cost strategy for politicians to express their concern, and deflect attention from the real problems concerning the people."

Politicians deflecting attention from real problems, of course, is a phenomenon hardly limited to India. But as long as "Killer Coke" and other corporate-campaign activists seize the high moral ground, they will succeed in pressuring elected officials to continue along that path.