Coca Cola in Mehdiganj, Varanasi

Mark Shapiro sent a message about the long-running protest about the activities of Coca Cola in Mehdiganj, prompting a search and the following brief chronology. It was good to find a reference to the work of scientist V.T. Padmanabhan, who had expressed his appreciation of Winin Pereira’s thinking on a visit to England some years ago.

2003 –  October 8th, Times of India reports:

Farmers in Mehdiganj, a hamlet ten kilometres off Varanasi, waging a four-year-old battle against the Coca Cola plant in their village, have decided to lodge a formal complaint of theft of natural resources against the soft drink giant at the local police station.

With the plant using at least 1 lakh litres of water each day, the water table of Mehdiganj has dropped drastically over the last few years, claimed Raj Narain Patel, a farmer-turned-activist. The water table of the village wells had fallen up to 40 feet, he said. The level in the well owned by Ramnath, a panchayat member, had gone down by 30 feet, while his tube-well had gone totally dry. 

2004 – November 24th, Yahoo Group reports:

A padyatra against Coca Cola Pepsi Cola was violently attacked on 24th by police without giving any warning, began a fierce lathi charge on peaceful protesters. It is required by our law to give warning before they begin a lathi charge).

2005 – August 19th, Yahoo Group reports:

On 19th August, 2005 the Kerala Pollution Control Board had ordered the Coca Cola bottling plant in Plachimada, Dist. Palakkad to close down because cadmium was found in the sludge generated by this plant which posed a serious threat of contamination to the ground water. Coca Cola, even though it was asked, failed to justify the presence of Cadmium in its sludge.

2006 – June 8th, Yahoo group reports:

Villagers in Mehdiganj, 20 km from Varanasi are sitting on an indefinite dharna outside and Coca Cola bottling plant since March 23rd, 2006 demanding the closure of the plant.

Now, the Central Pollution Control Board (see Frontline, May 20, 2006 issue) has revealed that the sludge generated by Mehdiganj, Varanasi plant also contains dangerous levels of cadmium, chromium and lead. Cadmium and chromium are known carcinogens and lead retards the mental growth of children. With this information now made public the CPCB must take an immediate decision to close down the Mehdiganj and other such plants of Coca Cola and Pepsico where sludge has been found to contain dangerous toxins.

In a recent study (yet unpublished) conducted by scientist V.T. Padmanabhan it has been found that the median birth weight of children born in Plachimada after the Coca Cola plant came into existence has dropped by 200 grams.

2007 –  Peoples’ Science Institute, Dehra Doon Hazards Centre, New Delhi

A detailed report about the situation in Mehdiganj with data on maps and graphs, published in October 2006, was presented. It can be seen here:

http://www.thesouthasian.org/archives/archives/2007/Mehdiganj%20Draft%20Report.pdf

2008 – March

A researcher in Varanasi refers to a conference in Mehdiganj about water rights from 28th to 30th March, 2008.

2009  – June

A researcher in Varanasi blogs about working with American writer Michael Blanding for two days (14th and 15th of June) in Mehdiganj as his translator and local assistant. He is writing a book on the Coca-Cola issue. This book is called Coke Machine and will be published under Penguin Publications, USA.

2010 – July

The Indian Civil Society publication reports the evidence of Sharafat Ali, an old man who can barely walk, but came all the way from Ghaziabad to be at a Hazards Centre’s book launch. Ali wanted to tell everyone what his neighbour, the Coca-Cola factory was up to. ”We have rashes, tumours and tension ever since this cola factory came up in our area Agriculture is ruined, so is our health. There’s no grass. Cows don’t yield milk. Twenty-five cows passed out after drinking water released by that factory,” he said . . .

The report alleges that the cola factories are draining aquifers, dirtying fields, ruining crops and causing ill health. The cola companies are promising jobs and development and  spreading poverty and pollution instead.

The Hazards Centre and the People’s Science Institute found groundwater samples contained high amounts of lead, chromium and cadmium.

2011 – May

On 15th May 2011, a report bringing more recent information and good photographs came from Mehdiganj near Varanasi , one of the Coca-Cola affected areas.

An activist, Mahendra, spoke about the divisive role of NGOs: 

“I don’t like target oriented activism. Funding bodies are breaking up our movements. Some leaders are paid £800/month and try to dominate, but they don’t have realcommitment. Those who are really committed don’t get recognised and the NGOs steal their light. There is no-one to support them. It is so sad.”

“After these reports exposed them Coca-cola became hyperactive and started promoting  rainwater harvesting in the villages. In December 2009 they claimed to have become ‘water neutral’. The most water depleted area is the 3km radius around the plant, but most of their water harvesting schemes are 40km away. They are even claiming to offset the damage with schemes in America. But water is a local issue, it has nothing to do with the global picture. Our major demand to close the plant has still not been fulfilled.”

“In the last year many of the NGOs who were with us have taken money from Coca-cola for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects locally. The company has also paid good money to manage the media locally, putting on cultural events and projects in Varanasi.”

When I asked about the company’s water harvesting schemes one of the men, Ram Pyari, told us; “It is all propaganda. It does not help us.”

All over the land and in other countries valiant people are protesting about pollution damaging the health of people and their environment. The last post spoke of Brenda, who has long sought justice for farmers affected by organophosphate sheep dip, used by government order. The next will tell of Len Aldis’ part in the struggle to get justice for Vietnamese, damaged through generations by Agent Orange sprayed by American forces.

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