An Inspiring Story Of Struggle Against Coca Cola’s Alleged Attempt To Destroy The Environment For Profit

Posted on December 30, 2013 in Environment

By Dr. Nanda Nautiyal:

“If a single tree is chopped off we will start movement like Gaura Devi’s Chipko Movement”

This line caught my eye one morning. I read further and came to know that these determined words are of the villagers of Chharba which is located in western Uttarakhand and facing tremendous industrial pressure at present time. Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd. (HCCBPL) is anticipating its new bottling unit here. Villagers are fighting for their green belt which is going to be demolished for this plant. I was quite amazed with the determination of the villagers and tried to carry out research on it. I was surprised to know that this is not the first time that Chharba panchayat (a constitutional body of the village) is in distinction. In the year 2011-12, Chharba Gram Panchayat was awarded “Panchayat Sashaktikaran Puraskar” for successful de-addiction campaign in Uttarakhand by the central government. This year too, they were nominated and honored along with 10 village panchayats in India by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India for the presidential award for the anti-drug campaign they launched. Once again, this vigilant panchayat is standing up for their rights and confronting the government and the soda titan.

Coca-Cola Post Strong Earnings

The story began when a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between Mr Shukla Vasan, the Ex- Director of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd. and Rakesh Sharma, Managing Director of the State Industrial Development Corporation of Uttarakhand Limited (SIDCUL) on 17 April, 2013. According to the memorandum, the plant is going to be established in 60 acres land at Chharba-Langa Road, Uttarakhand. The Government provided land to the company at the rate of 95 Lakh per acre. Company has announced to invest Rs. 600 crores in the project and also offered employment for 1000 persons.

Currently, the Chharba village has 1659 families and a population of around 10,046. Agriculture is the sole base of livelihood. Fifty-sixty years ago, this land was given to the Chharba people by Acharya Vinoba Bhave under “Bhoodan Movement” especially for livestock rearing. Green belt which falls under the proposed project site consists of the following pattern: Melia azedarach near the Sheetla river, then Dalbergia sissoo and then a beautiful Pasture land at right side of the Chharba village, while on the right hand side is a beautiful forest dominated by tree species like Dalbergia sisso, Acacia catechu and Eucalyptus spp. Adjacent to this green belt is the cultivated land, the livelihood source for the villagers.

The consciousness of the village panchayat, villagers’ zeal and determination for saving their green belt, the Government’s idle behaviour and my research insight have led me to pen something on the Chharba’s current plight.

Proposed Land: A Catch-22 Situation

The proposed site comes under Chharba Gram Panchayat which was acquired by the state government earlier. The land is located near Sheetla river and is covered by vegetation accommodating very high degree of biodiversity. This land was first given to the Doon University for educational purposes in 2005 for three years but the university failed to utilize it. The land was further considered for the Center of Aromatic Plants and now, finally, this land went in the pocket of the HCCBPL. The villagers are very furious and clarified to the authority that they are in favour of any other industry that could support the objectives of sustainable development, and that they would not like Coca-Cola giving way to an ecological disaster.

Villagers recall that this area was barren three decades ago. The villagers have this experience in their memories that before the area was covered by dense vegetation years ago, it was drought-ridden and also suffered from floods during the monsoon season. There was a problem of water in this area and villagers had to bring potable water from far-flung areas. Recurrent floods and acute water shortage frequently led to economic disasters.

In 1983-84, a plantation programme was undertaken under the Vishwa Vaniki Yojna of Government of India. After that year, for overcoming the situations of drought and floods, villagers are continuously planting trees on this land. Due to the continuous brave efforts of villagers, now a huge beautiful forest is blooming at this place comprising about 70,000 trees of diverse species, such as Dalbergia sissoo, Acacia catechu, Melia azedarach, Eucalyptus spp. and Tectona grandis, besides numerous species of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Due to the forest cover raised by the efforts of villagers, water aquifers got recharged and now the local population does not have to confront any water scarcity problems. Trees have also phenomenally controlled flood problem.

In the village, we got an opportunity to meet Mr. Rumi Ram Jayaswal, Gram Pradhan (head of the constitutional body of the village) and a dynamic personality in himself. He told us that the villagers are planting around 5000 trees every year on this land. This year also they continued the trend of planting 5000 trees. Right now, the land is occupied by about 1.5 lakh trees; out of which 10% are of Eucalyptus while 90% are of other species. As Mr. Jayaswal had other important meeting, we moved out of his house to meet other people and visit the site.

The villagers’ fear

Keeping the picture of proposed plant activities in mind, we decided to walk inside the village to know the views of the locals. We met Mr. Prahlad Singh, a middle aged shopkeeper in Chharba. His views should be conceded by government and policy experts. “Loss is loss, whether it is of ours or of others”, says Prahalad. “Government is saying that the Coca Cola Company will take water from river; it is ok, but the chemicals oozed out by the plant will spoil the stream. Even if plant throws its waste out of our village’s range, it will affect the other villages. If we are not directly affected by the polluted stream, our brethren in other downstream villages will bear the brunt of the same.”

The question is not only of the green belt of the village but also about the 12 families which have been living there for more than 25 years. They are solely dependent on the area which will soon go denuded for which the state government has already prepared the decks. We talked to one such family which resides in the area for 25 years. A young man named Virendra Dhyani discussed about the situation with us. He drew our attention towards the flood aspect. He said that this land is always flooded in the monsoon time. Not only this village but the flood takes other areas into its folds too. Thanks to the forest, now the incidents are not frequent but earlier when the area was bare, the flood always left trail of its destruction. He added that the government has demarcated the land of the river plain also which will narrow the path of the river in monsoon and could be a cause for widespread destruction in future.

While surveying the site, we met some Gurjars and farmers. Cattle were grazing on the ground and some dipped themselves in the water to combat the heat. We stopped some people and had a discussion about the use of the green belt. We both were surprised when we came to know that the pasture land and the forest area which are in the proposed site are fulfilling the requirements of five different gram panchayats including Chharba. Jaman Khata, Baluwala, Khusalpur and Jatuwala are neighboring panchayats which also rely on this green belt for pastoral activities.

Irresponsible Business Behavior

Villagers are very afraid of the water shortage problem and chemicals which the bottling plant is going to release after it begins functioning. Coca-Cola plants have a bad history in India. Before camping in Uttarakhand, HCCBPL planted nearly 52 bottling plants at different locations in various states spreading all across India, and it has been experienced that in most of the locations, people are facing some common problems. There are several cases against the company for violating rules in India.

Water shortage problem has been the first and foremost problem in most Coca-Cola setup areas. People of Plachimada in Kerala were the first to have raised voices against this plant. They became victims of thirst, hunger and poverty. On huge protest for demand of justice by the concerned community, the State Government of Kerala formed the High Power Committee in supervision of K. Jayakumar, Additional Chief Secretary, Government of Kerala, on this issue.

At Plachimada, the HCCBPL plant was established in 34 acres of land and had been withdrawing water from 6 bore wells and 2 open wells. A total amount of 5 lakh liter water per day was needed for the company with the generation of 1.5 – 3.0 lakh LPD waste water. This huge amount of waste water containing highly toxic metals mixed up with the soil each day. Waste water also reached the aquifers of that area through percolation. This daily discharge near land affected the soil quality and excess water boring by the industry turned agriculture towards losses. The associated population also got affected by drinking and using water of contaminated aquifers. This was not the end of the suffering of the people. Health problems and loss to agriculture broke the economy of the region and people were forced to live in miserable conditions. Figure 1, based on different case studies, shows the possible impacts of Coca-Cola bottling plant in a local area.

Figure 1

High power committee report clearly indicated that HCCBPL is responsible for depletion of water resources and also has severe impact on water and soil in the area. It also stated that the company is also responsible for causing environmental degradation by over-exploitation of groundwater and irresponsible disposal of sludge. This reckless water withdrawal created the water scarcity in the area and people are forced to fetch water from far off places.

The report further stated that the company fooled the farmers by passing them untreated sludge as manure and is responsible for substantial degradation in soil quality, water contamination, and consequential loss in agriculture.

Heavy metals like cadmium, chromium and lead have been detected in the sludge and affecting the lives of the community and also causing diseases like skin ailments, breathing problem and other debilities. Members of the committee took samples of water, soil and fodder from the company sites and heavy metals were recorded higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) permissible limit. Children dropped out from institutions due to social, health and economic factors caused by pollution.
Violation of some major acts came under notice in the report, e.g., Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, The Factories Act, 1948, Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989, The SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, Indian Penal Code; Land Utilization Order, 1967, The Kerala Ground Water (Control & Regulation) Act, 2002 and The Indian Easement Act, 1882.

The committee added in the report that the company is liable to compensate the damages under “polluter pays- principle”. Total compensation was claimed 216.26 crores on various losses calculated as agricultural loss (84.16 Crores), health loss (30.00 Crores), cost of providing water (20.00 Crores), wage loss and opportunity cost (20.00 Crores), cost of pollution of water resource (62.10 Crores). The company is closed at present time due to absence of opening licence.

Like Plachimada, other places also suffered due to huge water depletion. Wada in Maharashtra, Mehdiganj in Uttar Pradesh and Kala Dera in Rajasthan are hit on this list.

Several studies concluded at the affected sites confirmed hasty decrease in the level of water table. According to India Resource Center data, Kala Dera ground water table showed significant decrease after starting of the operation of the plant. They noted an interesting fact about the ground water table fall in the area. Coca-Cola started operation in 1990-2000. In 1980-1990 the ground water level just fell 3.94 meters and in 2000-2010 it fell more than 5 times, i.e., 25.35 meters. Coca—Cola site led to the drought burst area. The amount of water which can be used in about 50 years was lost in just 10 years. This was the case from the land which was considered a desert. Finally, the plant is removed from that area but the wrong it has done to the community can never be reverted. The present condition of the community of that area is pathetic due to this high profile company.

Another important site is Mehdiganj situated near Varanasi (UP), where people were angered after the announcement of filing application for the expansion of the ongoing plant by the Coca-Cola company. People walked on street with the banners because they knew what they were losing and what they could lose in the future. Due to excessive boring of water, ground water level fell 7.9 meters in 11 years since Coca-Cola started its operation there, a study done by India Resource Center stated. The Central Ground Water Board declared the plants’ groundwater extraction ‘excess’ in its 2012 report. Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) tested the waste of the Coca-Cola bottling plant and found the level of cadmium and chromium in excess.

All these consequences are the reason people are denying the the invitation of the company. Villages which were prosperous before plant operations are now in a pathetic condition. Chharba village knows the value of its resources and is begging the government to pay attention on the issue.

Company Promises: A Sweet Lounge

Not only environmental degradation, the company is also responsible for emotional torture of the associated community. In the beginning, the plant takes permission from the government to build a plant by providing ample employment opportunity to the locals and keeping safe management practices which only proves to be fake in the end. Glittering offers from the company may catch up some people’s eyes but the reality lies far away. People of the community are presently facing many social abnormalities. Villagers of Chharba too believe that the employment opportunity which company is offering to provide with is a farce. Sheela Devi says, “None of the companies provided an employment opportunity to the locals from Selaqui to Langha road. These companies always make fake promises.”

After protests from different bodies and even by the community for excessive water mining, the company came up with a new promise, of rain water harvesting. But it was also substantiated as a lie. The equipment and construction in many plants are just for showing off. Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) carried out a study on the rain water harvesting structures of Mehdiganj and mentioned in its report of 2012 that the structures don’t have any bearing on the pumping of water being carried out by the factory. So, their water harvesting practices are also just a noise and in no way related to reality.

HCCBPL Bottling Plant: Development or Disaster?

May be Uttarakhand’s CM Mr. Vijay Bahuguna is foreseeing this project as an opportunity for the development of the state but, in fact, it is just a mirage. People’s experiences of company’s activities in other locations of the country are bitter. The promises made by the company have turned out to be false. The company mines huge amount of water that will create water shortage in the area. The amount of water which the company would extract has the capacity to fulfill the need of hundreds of people for many years. Previous incidents clearly show that the company is responsible for depleting water resource and spoil agriculture in the area it is located. They are also responsible for contaminating soil and water resources by dumping their untreated wastewater directly into the open. The community residing nearby the bottling plant is experiencing mental and physical illness due to the plant. Psychologically too, the company is breaking the individuals by paralysing their economy. All these consequences are certainly not supporting the vision of sustainable development which should truly favour equitable sharing. Figure 2 clearly shows the series of degradation of resources and impact of resource degradation on a society and its economy.

Figure 2

The land, which is right now in the acquisition of the company, has a beautiful patch of thousands of trees which make the local environment vibrant by providing pure air, blocking floods, providing fodder and recharging groundwater. The environmental services which these trees are providing at present are beyond measure. HCCBPL want to clear this forest and put up a bottling plant. The land cover which recharges quality and quantity of groundwater will surely work as water soaker and polluter after plant establishment. An old man says, “These trees are like our child, we raised them as our own kids, and we can’t let them die for the company which is responsible for several deaths.”

This line makes me realise the genuine commitment of the local people to save their green belt. The Chharba community is aware of the impending ecological imbalance and is fighting for what is rightfully theirs and their future generations. The land belongs to them and it is their right to protect it for the sake of their livelihood and for the sake of the environment. Development is meant for society and if it becomes a bane for a society, it is worthless. Can development (if it is development) be preferred over life? At this hour there are certain questions which need to be answered by the government:

– Will the company which failed earlier on account of its unsafe waste disposal and unsafe operations keep its promise of safe management practices?

– What measures will the company adopt for waste management?

– Where will it dump its highly contaminated waste?

– The most important thing, where will they have water supply from?

– Does it make sense to cut thousands of trees without considering the impact?

These questions are cropping up in everyone’s mind. The community demands for sustainable development. Humanity cannot be put aside for the sake of development. The people’s reasoning behind their protest is perfectly meaningful, as per the laws of the land and no sensible government would ignore it. Chharba is totally indulged in agricultural business. Water shortage can create hindrance in irrigation and fodder supply and is enough to break down the livelihood base of the area. About two-three decades ago, the land was facing acute water shortage but the situation was overcome by developing vegetation cover on the area.

Restoration of water sources reflects the people’s insight and vision. According to the signed MOU, the proposed plant will get supply form the surface water body, i.e. Yamuna. Water volume of Yamuna River itself fluctuates according to seasons throughout the year. The Dakpatthar Barrage from which the water is going to be withdrawn is around 15 km away from the site. This barrage is the source of water supply to the states of Uttar Pradesh and Himanchal Pradesh. Sucking water from the barrage will affect the irrigation in both the states. During the monsoon period, the stream itself carries enormous load of silt and garbage. It is clear that the company could not use this water. Secondly, the barrage is a center of attraction among people due to its tranquil scenic beauty and habitat of several migratory birds. This project will surely perturb the ecology of the area.

The channeling of huge amount of water from the stream will further contribute to damage the future of agriculture in the area. Whether the plant is going to use groundwater or surface water, the groundwater resource will severely get affected due to improper treatment or absence of treatment facility in both the cases.

We went back to Mr. Jayaswal, the Village Pradhan, for a short discussion. The summary of Jayaswal’s views is as follow:
“We, the people of Chharba, don’t want Coca-Cola at any cost. If we are living prosperously today, it’s all due to the green belt and we will not let it be destroyed for the bottling plant. We raised our voice to the central government and they gave us a positive response, we believe that soon the state government will realise the consequences of its plan. We are not yet in any direct communication with the Coca-Cola Company but its agents came once and we clearly told them that we will not allow Coca-Cola to enter the village. This project will bring 100% harm, if anyone knows about any benefit related to this project then come to us and tell us, and we will let him know what would be the serious consequences of the plant.”

When Mr Jayaswal was having this conversation with us about the movement, his eyes were gleaming with confidence. He also told us how the villagers and communities are fighting for the land with the slogan of “Coca-Cola hatao, desh bachao”. Villagers also tied “Rakshasutra” around the trees and took a vow to save the green belt. He again continued that many organizations and NGOs are coming forward and joining hands with the Chharba movement. India Against Corruption (IAC) and Anna Hazzare ji also provided their support to them in the movement.

We both saluted his confidence and his commitment to his society and gave him best wishes for the movement. On returning back, I discussed with my friend, who is studying law, about the legal issues. What can our law do in this whole thing? He told me about the case history of M C Mehta versus Union of India 2004(12) SCC118. In this case, the Supreme Court acknowledged groundwater as a social asset and believed that under Article 21 of the Constitution, citizens have full rights to use air, water and earth. Environmental balance is needed to be maintained and groundwater priority should be given to domestic and agricultural needs.

Well-known environmental activist Vandana Shiva also wrote in her article, India: Soft Drinks, Hard Cases,  translated by Donald Hounam, that natural resources are meant for public use and enjoyment and the state works as a trustee under legal parameter of natural resources to protect them. These resources which are for public can’t be converted into private ownership.

Dr. Vir Singh, an environment expert and Professor in Department of Environmental Science, GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, shared his views on the whole incident. He says, “When India (the then Rajeev Gandhi Government) had opened Gateways for Pepsico and Coca Cola in 1986, voices were raised against the decision all over the country. You will recall that the first non-Congress Government in India, the Janata Party, in 1977, had asked the Coca Cola company to wrap up and leave India. With Charan Singh, the then Home Minister and the brave sweetheart and Hero of the Youth George Fernandes, the then Industry Minister, leading the role of uprooting  Coca Cola from India. This multinational company is very notorious in itself, and that is why the erstwhile government taught it a lesson to show it the way out of the country. A few years ago, the Down To Earth Magazine of the Centre of Science and Environment published a cover story about the unsafe drink contaminated with pesticides provided by Coca Cola Co. You can perhaps find the whole story from the website of Centre of Science and Environment, New Delhi or of Down to Earth. The matter reached the Supreme Court. The verdict was against the company but even the government (of Dr. Manmohan Singh) could not dare to take any action against the company. So, you can imagine the power of the notorious MNC. But this power cannot be stronger than our courage, our zeal and our will power. Apart from supplying  beverage contaminated with pesticide and playing with the health of masses, this plant is going to be of serious socio-economic and environmental repercussions. Land, soil, water, air – everything would be polluted, biodiversity would undergo irrecoverable erosion due to pollution of land, water and air. Due to contamination of the food chain, even wild fauna would be wiped out from the area. Soil contamination would knock down soil microflora and dessert will creep over the fertile soil of the Doon Valley”.

All those committed to land, environment, society and the country are fighting against the implementation of this plant and concerned citizens are raising their voices. The ball is in the government’s court. The future of the village and nearby area depends on the decision of the government. Village community is the main stakeholder of the land and their voice should be duly heeded.

The whole world has seen the naked dance of an unprecedented disaster this year. Thousands of people have lost their lives and thousands are still missing in this disaster. After knowing about all the consequences, if government still sticks to its decision for establishing the bottling plant in the village then definitely another disaster is going to happen sooner or later.

Dr. Nanda Nautiyal is Assistant Professor, Department of Applied Science, School of Engineering and Technology, Swami Rama Himalayan University. She can be reached at nautiyal.nanda@gmail.com

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