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The photograph that spoke more than words.

Take a close look at this picture of a large billboard at a busy intersection in Chennai. What do you see besides the familiar ‘Drink Coca Cola’ advertisement? If you live in an area that experiences water shortages, you will not fail to notice the row of empty pots standing alongside a dry hand pump.

How are the two linked? And why is it “in the news”?

The photograph was taken by Sharad Haksar, leading international photographer and winner of the 2005 Cannes Silver Lion. Haksar was in the news a short while ago when Coca-Cola threatened him with legal action and a fine of Rs 2 million. He was asked to remove the billboard immediately, and to tender “an unconditional apology in writing” for causing “incalculable damage” to the reputation of the company.

Haksar has refused to apologise.

The message in the photograph

Why is this photograph such a threat to Coca-Cola’s image? Perhaps it’s because it reveals more than what is visible to the eye. It brings out the hidden link between rampant misuse of resources and the way some corporates pursue ruthless profits.

The story of Mehdiganj

You must have read the piece What’s wrong with the water in Mayilamma’s well? on this site. Here’s another story about Coca-Cola.

This happened in a village called Mehdiganj, some 20 km from Varanasi, where Coca-Cola bought over an existing Parle plant to set up its own factory. This was in 1999.

Using a highly mechanised production process, peak production at the factory between March and August was 720,000 bottles a day. That meant 2 million litres of water a day; 360 million litres a year. As a result, groundwater in the region was being rapidly depleted at the rate of 10 feet every year.

Farmers now needed electric motors to draw water from their wells, to irrigate their fields. When the monsoons failed in 2004, people faced severe water shortages. Fields began drying up, and mangoes that grow abundantly here withered at the flowering stage itself.

The Coca-Cola plant discharged liquid effluents and dumped sludge onto the surrounding fields. People began to lose their entire rice and wheat crop, leading to heavy monetary loss. It is also alleged that wastewater was being regularly directed into a canal that flowed into the Ganga.

Community protests

Soon the community began voicing their concern at the manner in which the company was blatantly exploiting and polluting the area’s natural resources. In 2000, they formed a group called the Gaon Bachao Sangarsh Samiti (GBSS) and sent appeals to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and the president of India. The village sarpanch approached the district magistrate with a grim picture of the situation.

Not surprisingly, Coca-Cola refused to comment. The Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB), which is supposed to be taking care of people’s rights, spoke on the company’s behalf by declaring that the waste discharge from the plant was non-toxic and not dangerous. Agitated villagers barged into the pollution board office and dumped a sack-full of sludge from the Coca-Cola plant onto the desk of an officer.

The movement has since spread to a number of neighbouring villages. It is said that as many as 20 villages have been affected by falling water levels. Organisations and civil society groups have joined the battle to help mobilise people. Sit-ins, pickets and demonstrations are common, and the police retaliates by lathi-charging and arresting leaders.

Who is at the receiving end?

It’s the people of Mehdiganj who are bearing the brunt of economic changes taking place in the region. The traditional art of Benarasi sari weaving, for which the area was renowned, is disappearing with the closure of many handloom units. Local artisans live impoverished lives, while the modern Coca-Cola plant has not brought in the promised jobs as it is highly mechanised.

At the same time, protesting villagers find themselves alienated from workers who fear they could lose their jobs.

How long will this endless battle go on? And at what cost?

Take another look at Haksar’s photograph. Think of how a simple cola could snatch away your right to clean drinking water, land and air. Today it’s Mehdiganj; tomorrow it could be your village, your town, your city…

-- Suroopa Mukherjee

August 2005

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