NEW DEHLI: A pollution fine for Coca-Cola and an order for PepsiCo to cut water use at factories in India have highlighted an intensifying conflict between big business and farmers over natural resources. Last month, a report commissioned by the southern state of Kerala ordered Coca-Cola to pay 47 million dollars in compensation for polluting agricultural land and extracting too much groundwater at a bottling plant. A similar report submitted at the same time instructed PepsiCo to cut groundwater use by two-thirds at its plant also in Kerala’s Palakkad district.
The twin investigations were ordered by the Kerala government after years of protests by farmers who say industrial projects like those run by the soft drinks giants leave just a small fraction of water for irrigating fields. “Operating water-guzzling bottling plants in drought-hit areas where farmers do not have access to water is highly unethical and criminal,” said R. Ajayan, who is spearheading the campaign in Kerala. Farmers in Kerala close to the Coca-Cola plant, which was only open between 1999 and 2004, say the water table dropped drastically and a sludge containing toxic chemicals dumped by the unit seeped into their soil making it infertile.
“We wait and wait for water and what we extract is not even worth feeding the cattle,” said Raghav Govind, a farmer living near the plant. Coca-Cola closed its plant in Kerala after months of angry protests. Both companies deny all the allegations, which many observers see as politically motivated. “Based on scientific evaluation, our Palakkad plant operations have not been shown to be the cause of local watershed issues,” Coca-Cola said in a statement about its closed unit. PepsiCo said its plant was a model factory and one of the most water efficient examples of its type. “Through innovative recycling and recharging techniques, the plant has been able to save about 200 million litres of water in the last four years and has also brought down the water usage by 60 percent,” it said.
Environmentalists say future clashes between farmers and industry will become increasingly fraught due to government failure to regulate the use of water, with the country’s annual consumption expected to almost double by 2050.
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