Written By: Surabhi Agarwal and Sandeep Pandey
Image Credit: Carlos Latuff /Wikimedia Commons
Recently, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring the Right to Water a fundamental human right with India as one of its signatories. The resolution “affirms that the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity.”
In spite of this, all over the world water is increasingly being commodified and exploited for profit. More and more of the world’s water is falling into private hands to be treated as a product with a consumer-base. At the fore-front of this assault on the right to water are the world’s big soft drink companies, primarily Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, both of which specialise in extracting water in huge volumes from public bodies of water, adding large quantities of sugar and caffeine to it or packaging it directly be sold as Kinley (Dasani, as it is known in the United States) and Aquafina, respectively. These companies are notorious not just for their environmentally destructive practices, but also for exploitative labour policies and the adverse health effects of their products.
Coca-Cola Factory in Mehdiganj
Image Credit: India Resource Center
Coca-Cola’s operations in India have been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years. The company has been accused of contributing to water shortages in many communities. Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCCBPL), the largest bottling partner of the Coca Cola company in India, has been operating a carbonated soft drink plant near Mehdiganj village,Uttar Pradesh since 1999. Since then, Arajiline has been declared a critically exploited Block in terms of the groundwater usage levels by the Central Ground Water Authority. Many hand pumps, wells, bore wells and ponds in the area have dried up. The government has banned farmers from installing any new bore wells for the purpose of irrigation or even hand pumps for drinking water.
Until recently, to meet its yearly requirement of 50,000 cubic metres of water, the plant had been using two bore wells of depths 103 and 137 meters respectively, drawing as much as 12,290 cubic metres/month of water during peak season in June. Now, the plant is set to expand its capacity to 250,000 cubic metres/year and has submitted an application to the Central Groundwater Authority (CGWA) seeking permission for this.
HCCBPL claims to have been recharging 79,141 cubic metres of water back into the water table every year through the water recharge structures they constructed in areas surrounding the plant. It now proposes to recharge an additional 233,600 cubic metres/year by deepening existing percolation tanks.
Even a casual perusal of the hydrological survey report submitted by HCCBPL to the CGWA is enough to realise that Coca-Cola’s claims, quite literally, hold no water. The claim that the volume of water recharged each year is based entirely on the capacities of the rainwater harvesting structures installed, not on other critical factors such as the current condition of the structures, the actual annual rainfall levels since the plant was installed, the fact that a majority of the structures have been built in the last 6 years even though the plant has been operational and working at full capacity for 14 years and the location of the structure relative to point of extraction. Some of these rainwater harvesting structures have been installed on government buildings more than 20 km away in Varanasi city! Nothing that the report states proves that the existing structures have been effective in recharging any groundwater at all.
Coca-Cola’s Broken Rainwater Harvesting in Mehdiganj
Image Credit: Lok Samiti
The proposed future plan for recharging ground water is ambitious and involves the deepening of 5 existing water percolation tanks, as well as a “Catchment Area Treatment” procedure. This procedure is not properly described, but claims that it will increase groundwater recharge capacity of these tanks by over 300%. It is stated in the report that “The percolation tanks… will not be used for any water withdrawal, except the normal evaporation or by stray cattle. So the entire accumulated water in the percolation tank will have no other escape other than to percolate and join the groundwater storage.” However, all of these tanks are located close to villages, all of which are already water-starved. How can Coke stop people from withdrawing water from an open, public tank? The statement is absurd to say the least.
The question is: when the farmers have been banned from drawing any more water from under the ground, should Coca Cola be given this permission? The answer is an obvious no. But the company is a very powerful multinational and can easily influence the governments of the day.
Article 39 (b) of the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Indian Constitution says, ‘The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good.’ Coca Cola is drawing water to make a profit, not to serve any public interest and it would be a violation of the above article of the Constitution to give Coca Cola permission to increase its capacity, especially when sixteen elected heads of local governments have clearly stated their opposition to such a proposal.
That leads us to a larger question. The Constitution also says that the Gram Panchayats (local governments) can carry out their own economic planning. In a democracy, if we assume that people and not the State is sovereign, should not the Gram Sabha (local voting citizens) have been consulted when the decision to set up the plant was made by the state government? This shows how the central and state governments believe that the local governments, and Gram Panchayats in particular, are irrelevant. This bureaucracy prevents the Panchayats from playing the role envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi.
Increasingly, there is a realisation that people must be consulted on matters which affect their lives as there is more awareness about the need to respect democratic, civil and human rights, as well as the right of common people to participate in the decision-making processes of the State. It is hoped that the people of Mehdiganj, and those who support them, will pursue this struggle to its logical conclusion and the government will realise its duty of putting the interests of the people who have voted it into power over those of a powerful, profit-seeking corporation.