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Coca Cola causes Water Poverty

Written By Gopal Krishna on Saturday, May 10, 2008 | 8:49 AM

Note: Co-option of corporate media and gullible NGOs to support multinational enterprises of companies like Coca-Cola is happening in a context where the privatisation of the Indian state is complete.

Accusing Coca Cola beverage company of recharging groundwater is like alleging that the products of tobacco and asbestos companies have medicinal value.

It is another matter that when a company's sale equals the GDP of some 148 countries, the propaganda machine never stops and many a they commit even murders with impunity. People who remain passive to corporate atrocities when almost all seemingly sane voices and institutions become purchasable commodities create a situation invite misery of all ilk.

NGOs like TERI and WWF must review their engagements with entities like Coca Cola even if it means refusing to take their fiscal support, sponsorship and advertisements. Dr Sudhirenadar Sharma argues in an article in The Economic Times why the company in question deserves to be compelled to address reasonable questions.

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Cognitive dissonance is hard work!

10 May, 2008

In a country where 70% of irrigation water and 80% of its domestic water supplies come from its rapidly depleting groundwater reserves, groundwater recharge is bound to get unstilted support (Water shortage is the issue: ET, April 14). What if the recharge is funded by Coca-Cola from out of the profit it nets by extracting groundwater in the first place! That the company’s expanding business eyes country’s groundwater reserves is pushed aside. Not without reason as everybody is brainwashed by the corporate PR that passes for news these days, which makes everyone think that the Coca-Cola groundwater recharge model is the greatest invention to come down the pike since the wheel was invented.

It needs multiple voices and committed cheerleaders to hold aloft the corporation’s water stewardship credentials. That it’s bottled water brand Dancing was awarded with ‘Consumer’s International 2007 International Bad Product Awards’ - filtering drinkable tap water and selling it back to the market, particularly in Europe; that it faces charges for human rights abuses of union members trying to organise Coca-Cola plants in Colombia; and that two-thirds of freshwater used by Coca-Cola is converted into wastewater globally are facts that the company will see erased sooner from the public memory!

Co-opting unsuspecting civil society organisations to support corporation’s green makeover comes handy. Coca-Cola’s long-term partnership with the World-wide Fund for Nature; it’s recent support of $1 million to the Global Water Initiative, and its ongoing funding for more than 100 community water projects in 49 countries are designed to help the company avoid addressing reasonable questions. In India, where the privatisation of the state is nearly complete and where the idea of capitalism is fast sinking into middle-class psyche, the propaganda that a beverage company is recharging groundwater gets accepted without question.

No surprise, therefore, the groundwater withdrawal by Coca-Cola in Plachimada in Kerala is not seen as gross violation of a communal asset for meeting private interests. In similar tone, the soft water company’s groundwater withdrawal in Kaladhera in Jaipur is considered insignificant when compared to irrigation withdrawals in the same region. Need it be argued that while irrigation withdrawals are in larger public interest, groundwater extraction helps the company accumulate private wealth. Can appropriation of communal asset like water be justified for generating corporate profits?

That the profit thus generated are channelised to demonstrate how capitalism actually works if done right, and how if done right it will save those people from underdevelopment and lives of hardship and misery is at the core of Coca-Cola’s community initiatives. Let there be no doubt that while the intentions of the company may seem pious on paper, its philanthropic motive is shrouded in corporate mystery. Milton Friedman had rightfully said: “there is one and only one social responsibility of business - to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

Coca-Cola rightly argues that a successful business must be - in both perception and reality - a functioning part of every community in which it operates. No wonder, it supports no less than 320 community water projects across 17 states and takes pride in generating 15 additional jobs through supply and distribution for each job in the company. It maintains that by creating jobs and enabling business it contributes to alleviating poverty in the communities it serves. But that each job makes water dearer to the communities and that it returns to them in bottled form at exorbitant price is something the company will like us to ignore.

Undoubtedly, there are myriad anomalies in managing public water distribution systems that have resulted in severe water shortages across the country. Allowing multinational corporations unrestricted access to groundwater under the Indian Easement Act is one amongst them.

How indeed the country treats Coca-Cola and its clones will determine how prepared it is towards addressing the issue of emerging water poverty? A country that is dependent on groundwater for meeting its growing public demand cannot allow private companies to siphon profit out of its shrinking groundwater reserves in return of suspected favours via a vulnerable civil society. Can a killer be pardoned because he engages in simultaneous public service too?

Sudhirendar Sharma

(The author has served at the World Bank’s Water & Sanitation Program and currently heads the Delhi-based; The Ecological Foundation)

The Economic Times
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