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Published on Friday, April 21, 2006 by
Coke Slammed at Shareholders Meeting for Practices in India
by Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - As the level of anger and resentment against Coca Cola touches new heights throughout India, rights activists in the U.S. have increased pressure on the company to mend its ways of doing operations in rural areas. At a shareholders meeting in Delaware Wednesday, activists demanded the company disclose the full extent of its liabilities in India, but failed to receive any positive response from the company.

Mike Suchocki, left, and Sal D'Amico, of the Local 812 teamsters union out of New York, protest outside the Coca Cola Co.'s annual shareholders meeting at a hotel in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, April 19, 2006.

There has been continued criticism from activists who accuse the Atlanta-based company of labor abuses in Colombia and environmental abuses in India, despite the company's aggressive public relations campaign to counter the claims.

AP/Pat Crowe II
Mike Suchocki, left, and Sal D'Amico, of the Local 812 teamsters union out of New York, protest outside the Coca Cola Co.'s annual shareholders meeting at a hotel in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, April 19, 2006.

There has been continued criticism from activists who accuse the Atlanta-based company of labor abuses in Colombia and environmental abuses in India, despite the company's aggressive public relations campaign to counter the claims.
AP/Pat Crowe II

Despite enormous efforts to improve its public image through advertising, Coca Cola continues to be the prime target of attacks from rights groups in India who consider the multinational soft drink company a consistent violator of the right of local communities to have unhindered access to water.

With the summer heat wave just a few weeks away, people in more than 20 villages have come together in northern India to organize an indefinite vigil against Coca Cola in the town of Mehdiganj, where they are calling for the government to shut down the company's bottling plant.

The situation is similar in the desert state of Rajasthan, where people in more than 50 villages are facing acute water shortage, allegedly due to Coca Cola operations. Official accounts suggest that water levels in that area have dropped up to 10 meters since 2001 when the company started its operations there.

And in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, thousands of community members are organizing a series of protests against Coca Cola's plans to build a new plant in the town of Gangaikondan. Campaigners fear that the proposed bottling operations will cause soil pollution and water shortage.

"Coca Cola is culpable, and therefore liable for the serious problems that are affecting the lives and livelihoods of our people," said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, a rights advocacy group that works with peasants and local communities.

"The longer the Coca Cola company waits to genuinely address the issues in India, the larger their financial liability becomes," Srivastava added. "It just doesn't make good business sense."

Thousands of villagers whose livelihoods have been affected by Coca Cola operations are demanding the company bear the financial cost of their losses.

Srivastava, who spoke inside the Coca-Cola shareholders meeting and presented statements from Indian communities, said Coca Cola's sales in India did not account for its reported profits, which amounted to more than $1 billion in the first quarter of this year.

The company's volume sales in India have shrunk in the past several months. Aside from India, the company is also running into trouble with consumer groups, student bodies and labor organizations in many other parts of the world, including the United States and Europe.

Activists in the United States claim that more than 100 colleges and universities already have anti-Coke programs in place, and about 20 schools have either banned Coke products or axed their exclusive contracts with the company.

Also, increased pressure from student bodies throughout Europe is pushing hundreds of schools to cancel their contracts with the company, they say.

For its part, the multibillion dollar corporation has repeatedly denied that it bears direct responsibility for questionable practices in places like India, arguing that its business "in each country is a local business."

With about one million employees, the company says it operates in nearly 200 countries worldwide.

In India, the company has tried to deflect criticism by turning to image-making firms for help. But it seems that even on that front it is being defeated by activists.

Last week, for example, the company suffered a major setback when its primary spokesperson and Bollywood star Aamir Khan announced that he will be looking into the issues surrounding Coca Cola operations in India.

Coca Cola has reportedly tried to calm its critics in India by suggesting that rainwater harvesting programs could replenish the water use, but activists remain unmoved by such reasoning.

"The facts surrounding Coca Cola's operations speak for themselves," said Srivastava. "We suggest that the company rethink its approach to the campaign. It must come up with genuine ways to address the issues."

"Acknowledging that it is part of the of the problem is the first step," he added. "Until then the campaign to hold Coca Cola accountable will continue to grow and cost the company millions in profit as well as tarnish their image immensely."

© 2006

Common Dreams © 1997-2006

July 29, 2005
How Many Working Class Families Have Been Rendered Destitute in the Town of the Great Shopping Mall?
Class War in Gurgaon
The northern Indian state of Haryana in which Gurgaon is a town is known for the ruthlessness and barbarity of its police and the backwardness of its policiics.   It is also ­ needless to say ­ seen as a popular investment destination by multinational corporations.   Honda recently threw out lots of workers.   When protests boiled up, they sacked some leaders.   The workers took out a legal, lawful protest march which was set upon by the police with incredible ferocity.   Only, this time it happened on the highway and very close to New Delhi, the capital city.   So there was "live" coverage of the violence for two days.   The same Gurgaon is also famous for its Great Mall, a symbol of the emerging 'new' India, much touted by the New York Times and other newspapers.   AC/JSC
The scenes from Gurgaon gave us more than just a picture of one labour protest, police brutality or corporate tyranny.

It presented us a microcosm of the new and old Indias.

Different rules and realities for different classes of society.
A horribly oppressed wife, so runs the old American joke, slapped her husband in despair.   The man punched her over 30 times, till she lay battered and he was exhausted by the effort.   Then, panting, he told her: "Now we're even."   That's right.   Both sides were violent, weren't they?

That's pretty much the both-sides-did-it line, now in vogue to describe the brutality in Haryana.   Months of being denied their rights, the ruthless cutting of their jobs, the despair of the workers, count for little.   The breaking of the nation's laws, the torment of the sacked workers, their wives and children count for less.   Context counts for nothing at all.   History begins with the televised violence of two days.   Not with the hidden violence of years.

Even those 48 hours are instructive.   On the one hand, hundreds thrashed mercilessly by the police.   Some still being clubbed as they lay bleeding on the ground.   Hundreds missing.   Lathis [hard wooden stick carried by Indian policemen, often metal-tipped], teargas, water canons and other action from the police.   One woman sick with anxiety, swinging a stick at them - shown ad nauseum on every channel.   That, and some stone-throwers targeting cops in bullet-proof vests, neatly symbolised the match-up.   Yup, both sides were violent.

The Haryana police lived up to their history.   At the best of times, this force would not win a prize in any human rights competition.   (Unless the only other contestants were Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the Punjab police.   The race might then be close.)   This is the state of Jhajar, where five Dalits were lynched by a mob.   Their crime: they were suspected of killing a cow.   The Haryana police swung into action as only they could, filing cases against those they suspected of cow slaughter.   Then too, only nationwide outrage saw matters go further.   Then too, the site was close enough to the capital city for the media to take notice.

Yet the present violence in Haryana speaks of newer things as well.   There was something quite symbolic about Gurgaon being the venue of the protests.   About "old" Gurgaon being the scene of bloodshed and mayhem.   While "new" Gurgaon with its bustling, happy, mall culture, saw business as usual.   Gurgaon's mall has won the attention of media the world over.   Many well-known papers, notably, the New York Times, have added lustre to its legend.

On Tuesday, one television channel was smart enough to see the contrast.   The clearly better-off (and for now unaffected) having their hot dogs and coleslaw in the Mall.   While the plebs battled the cops at the barricades in "old" Gurgaon.   In that is a parable of an old and new India as well.

This time, much of the media got the picture, but many of them missed the point.   Two channels at least, told us the police were showing "maximum" and "extreme" restraint.   This against a background (reported by the same channels) of hundreds missing.   Of injured persons being frogmarched from hospital to lock-ups.   And of frightened people searching for their relatives.   This, too, alongside visuals of police battering unarmed people lying helpless on the ground.   I guess that's the maximum restraint the Haryana police are capable of, anyway.

The second day's violence was reportedly sparked off when frantic members of the public who turned up at the civil hospital could not find their relatives.   Some of these seem to have been whisked away by police to be charged with the previous day's violence.   That inflamed matters.   Note that some non-involved citizens of "old" Gurgaon got quickly involved.   What they had seen angered them.   And anyway, their anger had other causes, too.   Oddly, those pushing the "both-sides-were-violent" line seek no action against the police.   Both sides were violent, right?   How come one side faces no punishment?

Gurgaon was about the police and administration increasingly acting as enforcement agents of big corporations.   Not without precedent in the past.   But more and more a symbol of the new India.   It has been happening for some years in Kashipur and other parts of Orissa.   There, police and local officials have functioned almost as a private army of the mining companies.   Opposition leaders, even elected representatives, have been attacked when reaching there to inquire into the violence.

In Haryana, Honda did not even have to come into the picture till things went awfully wrong.   The police and administration were there to act on its behalf.   Had this incident occurred in Japan, where Honda has large unions to deal with, some of its top brass would have been seeking new employment.   Here, they've just begun to talk about giving back some of the workers their jobs.

Japan's Ambassador to India says this episode might prove bad for our image as an investment destination.   Gee!   I'm sure that warning will send all those terrified women searching for their relatives scurrying back to their homes in shame.   What's a few breadwinners when the image of India as an investment destination is at stake?   That mindset too, is symbolic of the new India.   Remember those editorial writers whose horror over the pogroms in Gujarat was roused not so much by the misery of the victims as by the damage to India's image as an investment destination?   They're back.

It's not all about Honda, either.   Haryana has seen many brutal actions against workers in the past decade.   In 1996, over 18,000 safai karamcharis struck work across that State for 80 days.   They were not seeking a paisa extra in wages or benefits.   They had a single demand.   They wanted their wages paid on time.   They sometimes went months without getting paid.

In response, the then Bansi Lal Government sacked 6,000 of them.   Close to 700 women found themselves jailed for up to 70 days under the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA).   This had not happened even during the Emergency.   This is the State of which an editorial says approvingly: "Historically, Haryana has been a State without labour unrest.   This has made it a sought after destination for investment... "   It has in fact been a region of severe labour suppression.   The editorial worries about finding "a more enlightened and less brutal way" of "dispersing a crowd."   Such kindness.   It might also be enlightened to respect the basic rights of people.   Haryana is notorious for a labour department that will not register trade unions formed by workers.

All such government actions were, of course, aimed at privatising services like sanitation.   In 2001, the Punjab & Haryana High Court ordered the reinstatement of over 1,000 workers of the Faridabad municipal corporation.   The corporation had privatised sanitation work - to an "NGO" - for "a monthly fee."   The then Mayor admitted the "experiment" had failed.   The fate of the Rs.2.5 million monthly fee is best guessed at.   The court held the retrenchment to be wrong.   Some courts still do such things.   That's why governments are so keen to change labour laws.   That too, reflects the new India.

Successive governments in Haryana have allowed companies to ride roughshod over workers' rights.   And though quite a few of new India's elite may not know it, trade unions are still legal in the country.   For now, anyway.   It would be worth looking at how much media coverage there has been of workers' problems here.   (Or anywhere else.)   In what depth have the often illegal practices of managements been covered?   How many working class families have been rendered destitute in the town of the Great Mall?

How many channels or big newspapers even have full-time correspondents on the labour beat?   That too in a country where just the job seekers at the employment exchanges almost equal the population of South Africa?

In Mumbai, the Mall itself has been built on the retrenched future of the workers.   On mill lands and on work they've been cheated off.   And laws have been stretched or changed.   You can open a bowling alley and evade the rules by dubbing it "a workers' recreation centre."   You can see both new and old India cheek by jowl here.

When entities closely linked to two top Shiv Sena leaders buy former mill lands for Rs. 421 crore, you'd think there would be much curiosity.   At least about where the money came from.   That too, when one of them happens to be a former Chief Minister and the other a Thackeray.   There's far more, though, about the "record" nature of the deal.   And excitement over what will come up.   A grand mall?   Or residential complexes?

The streets of Gurgaon gave us a glimpse of something larger than a single protest.   Bigger than a portrait of the Haryana police.   Greater than Honda.   Far more complex than the "image of India" as an investment destination.   It presented us a microcosm of the new and old Indias.   Of private cities and gated communities.   Of different realities for different classes of society.   Of ever-growing inequality.   Of the malls of the few and the chawls run-down tenements where usually working class people live] of the many.

P. Sainath is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu (where this piece initially ran) and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

Sunday, 17 July, 2005
Coke tries to can Indian poster
By Monica Chadha
BBC News, Delhi

Poster in Madras, India. Courtesy Sharad Haksar
Coca-Cola says it wants to resolve the matter amicably

Soft drinks giant Coca-Cola has threatened an Indian photographerwith legal action for using its logo in a poster depicting water shortages.

The poster, in Madras, shows a line of water containers and a hand pump with a Coca-Cola logo in the background.

A spokesman for Coca-Cola India said a copyright infringement notice had been sent to photographer Sharad Haksar.

Activists have accused Coca-Cola and Pepsi of depleting ground water — claims the firms both strenuously deny.

Coca-Cola India spokesman Vikas Kotchhar confirmed to the BBC that a legal notice had been sent to Mr Haksar for infringement of trademark.

He said they were in talks with Mr Haksar to resolve the issue amicably.

Nike encounter

The legal notice states Mr Haksar should remove the billboard immediately and issue an apology to the company or face further legal action and a possible fine of two million rupees($46,000).

Cola protesters in India
Indian protesters have campaigned against the cola companies

Mr Haksar — who runs his own advertising agency, 1pointsize — told the BBC he had no intention of hurting the company's sentiments or infringing its trademark.

"They are my client, I've done work for them. I would be stupid to fight with my clients," he said, describing the poster as "quite harmless".

Mr Haksar added: "The hoardings are a personal issue I have maintained in Madras for the past three years wherein I take a social issue each month and highlight it through pictures.

"As a photographer, it is my take on the severe water shortage in the state and across India. It is a fact and an irony that there is a shortage of drinking water while Coca-Cola is available everywhere."

Mr Haksar said he should be allowed freedom of expression.

This is not the first time his pictures have got him into trouble.

The billboard prior to the Coca-Cola one depicted a small boy urinating on a wall sporting the logo of US giant Nike with its brand line, "Just Do It".

Nike also sent a letter through its lawyers to Mr Haksar.

He said the issue was resolved peacefully though he had kept the hoarding on for an additional month as he wanted to show that he would not bow to pressure.

Mr Haksar said the Coca-Cola poster was due to come down at the end of July but he would keep it up if the legal action continued.


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For archive purposes, this article is being stored on website.
The purpose is to advance understandings of environmental, political,
human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues.