Coke brings thirst, not happiness to Varanasi

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Water war Villagers take out a bicycle rally demanding action against Coca Cola
Water war Villagers take out a bicycle rally demanding action against Coca Cola

Eighteen gram panchayats are taking on the multinational giant, Coca Cola at Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. The villagers demand immediate closure of the bottling plant accusing Coca Cola of drawing out excessive quantities of water, leading to a severe crisis.

The villages are located within an area of 5 km surrounding the plant. A letter signed by the village pradhans has been sent to the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB), demanding immediate action to stop groundwater exploitation by the plant. Local MLA Mahendra Singh Patel of the Samajwadi Party is also one of the signatories.

According to the letter, when the plant was set up in 1999 in Mehdi Ganj under the Arajiline bloc, the groundwater level in the region was stable. But the plant has been continuously drawing 50,000 cubic meters of groundwater per year. In 2009, the Central Groundwater Authority(CGWA) — a government regulatory agency to oversee ground water management — declared Varanasi’s Arajiline block as ‘over exploited’ owing to excessive water shortage in the area.

Mehdi Ganj, located 25 km from Varanasi city, is a living example of how development can bring misery to some. In 1990s, the Parle Agro Group acquired agricultural land here for setting up a plant. It was later acquired by Coca Cola which setup a bottling plant in 1999-2000.

The Coca Cola officials had assured the villagers that the factory would transform the village for the better. It was said that a large number of people would benefit as many jobs would be created. The promise never materialised.

What unfolded instead, was a series of controversies. The first was over land acquisition. It was alleged that the company had illegally grabbed gram panchayat land. The matter reached the high court, which issued a stay order on the acquisition.

In the process of making the soft drink, an excessive amount of polluted water from the plant was released to the fields. Initially, locals were made to believe that the water would be useful for the crops.

Soon, the adverse effects of the effluents began to be seen on crops. Water in nearby ponds and wells also got contaminated. In 2003, a test conducted on water discharged from the plant by the Central Pollution Control Board revealed that it contained quantities of lead, cadmium and chromium, which were much higher than the set standards.

Agricultural scientists also claimed that the crops were destroyed because of excessive amounts of cadmium in the water. When the farmers protested, the plant stopped discharging toxic waste into the fields. Farmers also protested against solid waste dumped by the company into the fields which destroyed the crops.

After the declaration of the Arajiline block as ‘over exploited’ in 2009, ground water harnessing was stopped with immediate effect. It was made mandatory for residents to seek permission from the administration before installing a handpump, digging a well or setting up a tube well. But it is alleged that Coca Cola does not follow any of these rules.

The international firm submitted a request for expansion in 2012-13 and sought permission to draw 2,00,000 cubic metres of water annually. The demand was met with a huge public outcry and the request was turned down. The company then proposed rain water harvesting to make the plant ‘water positive’. However, rising protests forced UPPCB to issue an order on 6 June 2014 to shut the plant down.

According to the order, Coca Cola did not have approval from the CGWA to run the plant. The company challenged the order in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which gave a green signal to the plant to start operations again.

The man pioneering the movement against Coca Cola, Nandlal Master, who is also associated with the Lok Samiti Sanstha says, “To grow food, one needs to seek permission from the authorities to set up a tube well. All prohibitions are for the farmers while Coca Cola enjoys a free run.”