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Coca-Cola plant 'has dried up our farms' say Indian villagers

A Coca-Cola bottling plant opened up near the town of Kala Dera and, critics say, exploited the existing water supplies to such an extent that the surrounding farmland dried up.

NEW DELHI // Shrawan Nayak's journey home from work each day is marked by sadness and frustration. Now a day wage labourer, Mr Nayak's route back to his house in the town of Kala Dera passes by a mineral powder factory that occupies the land where he and his father once had a 7-hectare farm. That was 10 years ago, before a Coca-Cola bottling plant opened up nearby and, critics say, exploited the existing water supplies to such an extent that the surrounding farmland dried up.

"The level of groundwater dipped too low and it made farming nearly impossible. Like many other farmers in Kala Dera, we were finally forced to sell the land to a mineral powder maker eight years ago," said Mr Nayak, 41, whose farm produced wheat, millet and vegetables. He also had to sell his cows and buffaloes. Not long after Coca-Cola opened its plant in the already semi-arid and Kala Dera, in Rajasthan, in a locale surrounded by farmland, the water table in the area dropped significantly, leaving farmers unable to access it and reducing their land to dust.

Their claims are supported by studies by India's Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), which found that the water table in Kala Dera has fallen by 22.36 metres since the factory opened, including by six metres between 2007 and 2008 alone. Amit Srivastava, the director of the India Resource Centre, which campaigns against several Coca-Cola plants in India that have been accused of depleting groundwater and polluting the environment, pointed out that in the nine years prior to the Kala Dera plant being opened, groundwater levels there fell by just three metres.

"Coca-Cola has located many of its bottling plants in India's drought-prone areas which they should never have done," said Mr Srivastava. "It is exactly in these areas where the communities have seen their access to water - a fundamental human right - significantly hampered by the arrival of Coca-Cola." Mahesh Yogi, a farmer turned activist, called the situation in Kala Dera a "disaster". "In a region mostly dependent on groundwater, the plant has brought disaster for 10,000 families in a five-kilometre radius of the plant. Coca-Cola is looting our natural resources, resources that belong to the public," said Mr Yogi, a member of the Jan Sangharsh Samiti, a local group that advocates for the closure of the Kala Dera plant.

However, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt Ltd (HCBPL), Coca-Cola's Indian subsidiary, said the accusations were baseless because the plant used only a tiny fraction of the available water - about one per cent - for its operations. "Kala Dera plant has improved its water-use ratios by more than 25 per cent in the past five years. We are continuously focusing on reducing and recycling the water used for our bottling operations," said an HCBPL spokesman.

It is not only in Kala Dera where Coca-Cola is accused of sucking the land dry. Identical community campaigns have targeted plants belonging to Coca-Cola and its rival Pepsi across the country in recent years. A Kerala state government-instituted committee said last week that HCBPL was responsible for depleting groundwater and dumping toxic waste around its bottling plant in Palakkad between 1999 and 2004, before it was forced to close down by protesting activists and locals. It recommended that the soft drinks giant be asked to pay compensation of US$47 million (Dh173m) for the environmental damage.

A statement by HCBPL disputed the committee's claims. "It is unfortunate that the committee in Kerala was appointed on the unproven assumption that damage was caused, and that it was caused by Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages," it said. Last month, also in Kerala, PepsiCo came under fire over exploitation of groundwater. A Kerala Assembly panel called on the company's plant in Puducheri to cut down its use of water by 60 per cent.

PepsiCo also refuted the panel's findings, and a spokesman said: "The charges against the plant are not true. It is a model plant and is one of the most water efficient units in the PepsiCo system." Mr Srivastava, the India Resource Centre director, accused Coca-Cola of operating with "complete arrogance and impunity" in India and said its operations did not respect the rights of local communities, farmers and the environment.

"Water shortages are commonplace in India already, and numerous studies point towards an even more difficult water situation with climate change, inefficient farming practices, as well as rampant industrial pollution and extraction," he said. "Whether they like it or not, Coca-Cola will have to accept that communities, farmers and livestock have precedence over water." For Mr Nayak, however, who now works on a day-to-day basis, the damage has already been done.

"From the crops and milk, our family once earned upwards of 1.5 lakh [150,000] rupees [Dh 12,260] annually. But as a day wage labourer, today I strive very hard to make even one-fourth of that income." @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae