Labour rights' violations in Colombia and water rights of local communities in India have become a cause of concern for Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola, as students across campuses in United States and Canada are beginning to question unethical practices of the companies. The firms impact the lives of students in North America as they usually have exclusive contracts with universities which prevent products of other companies besides their own to be sold on campuses. Several student bodies are up in arms as they think that they should have the freedom to choose their products and their choices should not be dictated by corporations like Coke and Pepsi. The firms are also making attempts to replace the free water fountains in campuses with their vending machines.
Developments in India reverberated in United States, when at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the Students Organized for Labour and Economic Equity (SOLE) complained to the administration on November 30, 2004, about a labour rights issue in Colombia and three areas of concern regarding Coke in India. The India concerns included cadmium in sludge coming out of Coca Cola plants, ground water depletion by bottling plants and presence of pesticides in beverage products. University authorities had asked Coca Cola to respond to these concerns and the Vendor Code of Conduct Dispute Review Board of the University had recommended strict action against the company in case of non-compliance with their Vendor Code of Conduct. On 29 December 2005, University authorities suspended their contract with Coca Cola.
Illustration: Farzana Cooper
In a major development at McMaster University in Canada, students in a referendum on 19 October 2005 unambiguously disapproved of the Coca Cola's $6 million exclusive contract with their University. The referendum was an official one and a first in the history of the University. A movement initiated by a students' organization 'Campus Choice' had informed the larger community of students of irresponsible behaviour of Coca Cola in India and Colombia. The referendum is expected to force the McMaster Students Union and University authorities to review the contract with Coca Cola.
York University in Toronto is also likely to review its decade long exclusivity contract with Pepsi which is to end in 2008, as student groups have become suspicious of its true value to the community. In the mid 1990s the students at this University had led a five year boycott of Pepsi products following the opening of their operation facilities in Burma a country with a poor human rights track record.
Students are also opposing administrations setting up their campuses as exclusive billboards for advertisement campaigns. Students are asking why workers in Coke plants in Colombia must bear the externalities of Coke so that the company can make profits. Why should the people in India of Mehandiganj, Varanasi or Plachimada, Kerala pay for the costs of making products on which the company makes huge profits? Who accounts for the externalities that result in Coke's profits? Coke and Pepsi are producing externalities - health problems, water depletion, pollution -- within a free market econom. These are costs they are not accounting for and not paying for.
The companies' responses to the concerns of students is not helping. On 4 October 2005, a documentary 'Mehandiganj Where Life is at Stake' was screened on the campus of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta to discuss the movement for rights over water of local communities going on in rural areas of Varanasi. After the screening, Harry J Ott, Director of Global Water Resources Center at Coca Cola's international headquarters, next door to the campus, claimed that he had Groundwater Board data available from India to show that water table had, in fact, risen at Mehandiganj, since the bottling plant of the company was set up there.
Ott was more willing to believe government data over vivid pictures of about 2000 people protesting against the plant in November 2004, shown in the film just screened. Farmers in Mehdiganj confirm the drop in the water table, in some cases upto 50 feet. They do not know how Coca Cola obtained figures from groundwater board claiming that the water table has gone up. Ott also claimed that the company has undertaken watershed management exercises all over the country to compensate for the depleting water tables.
At Carleton University in Ottawa, on 19 October 2005, the students attending a meeting similar to the one at Georgia Tech, asserted that they have a right to free drinking water from public fountains and Coke and Pepsi should not force them to buy bottled water. It is reported that a new building on the campus of University of British Columbia will not have any water fountains. Students expressed their resentment over this.
Companies like Coke and Pepsi are not willing to clean up pesticide residues in their products being sold in India. It has been more than 2 years since the Centre for Science and Environment in 2003 revealed the presence of pesticides in Coke and Pepsi products in India. This was later confirmed by a Joint Parliamentary Committee report. Still, no action has been taken yet either by the government or the companies themselves to remove pesticide residues from the products. Meanwhile, the Jaipur High Court had ordered Coke and Pepsi to mention pesticides' levels on their products, an order which the firms did not follow.
Coca Cola also refuses to acknowledge the presence of Cadmium in its sludge despite two reports -- one from the University of Exeter and the other from the Kerala Pollution Control Board -- independently confirming the presence of Cadmium in sludge coming out of the Plachimada plant. Can the firms be expected to do the more tedious task of watershed management to conserve water for Indian farmers?
In fact, in 2004, the Joint Parliamentary Committee noted with shock that soft drinks as an industry were not regulated. To set up their plants in India, Coke and Pepsi just need a no-objection certificate from the Food Department, the State Pollution Control Board (state government) and the local government (municipality or panchayat). In absence of any law regulating their water usage, they have made use of the fact that anybody owning a piece of land also has the 'right' to use water from underneath it. Cola firms do not even classify as an industry and hence do not come under the lens of the EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) process of the Ministry of the Environment. Other industries are required to prepare an EIA report as part of the clearance process. Moreover, nobody had realised that the Cola companies would use so much water.
Coincidentally, on this side of the globe, farmers in India are saying the same thing students on the other side of the globe are. They are asking Coke and Pepsi to leave their water alone so that it is available to them for drinking and irrigation purposes. Drawing away the water raises the question of the human rights of farming communities, in addition to the abuse they face at the hands of the local police and private security guards of Coca Cola whenever they try to organize a protest outside plant gates. The farmers of India and students on North American university campuses are essentially saying the same thing 'Stop privatisation of water!'