It is a truth universally acknowledged that a multinational company when questioned on its conduct rarely provides complete answers. History is replete with examples of big companies acting as though they live by different rules. My
last column on Coca-Cola's questionable relationship with water, a precious resource, provoked the company's well-oiled PR machine into action. Along came a letter
(please see the link at the bottom of this page) citing "flaws and biases" and other sins.
But the letter didn't address the central question I had raised -- Coca-Cola pays next to nothing for the millions of litres of water it extracts annually.
The letter by Deepak Jolly, Coca-Cola's vice president for public affairs in India, is neatly divided into various "facts," and I will attempt to counter them in the sequence he has raised them.
Fact I: Mr. Jolly says that water tables in Kaladera, Rajasthan, have improved because of the "rain water harvesting" done by his company with the local community. He then provides a table but gives figures just for one year.
Yes, the numbers improved between 2004- 2005. But the Coke bottling plant started in June 2000 and it might be more appropriate and honest to look at the water table from that year on.
According to a detailed study by the Central Ground Water Board, the water was 12.9 metres below ground level in May 2000, but by May 2004, the water level in Kaladera had dropped to 22.35 metres below ground level -- a drop of 9.45 metres. Even after the celebrated increase between 2004-5, Kaladera water table has still shrunk by 8.95 metres in five years since Coke began its bottling operations. Selective presentation of figures is neither good policy, nor good PR. It is a bad tactic.
True, there are other industries in the area that use water and one bottling plant is not solely responsible but the ratio of raw material to product is alarming in the case of Coca-Cola.
Fact II: Mr. Jolly celebrates his company winning the "prestigious Golden Peacock Award for Environment Management" last year.
Congratulations but it does take some of the shine away when you discover that Coca-Cola is the primary sponsor of the World Environment Foundation which gave the award. The corporate web spins wide.
As for the gram panchayat thanking Coca-Cola for joint initiatives -- well, I am glad, and hope more work will be done that benefits the community.
Fact III: Mr. Jolly disputes that it takes 4 litres of water to make one litre of Coke. He says "much less water is required" and the company's global water usage ratio "now stands at 2.6 litres" for a litre of beverage.
Again, he doesn't give the figure for India but gives us a global average. I am more concerned with the water usage ratio in India and don't want to drown in global averages. Luckily, the company's own documents -- the 2004 Environmental Report, Page. 8, available on its own website -- provide the figure. Coca-Cola in India used 3.9 litres of water to make one litre of the heady mix. Turns out the local figure is worse than the global one.
Fact IV: Mr. Jolly says local communities favour Coca-Cola factories, specially in Mehandiganj (Varanasi) and Kaladera (Rajasthan) because they create employment and other benefits. He rubbishes the opposition as being led by a biased local NGO and claims it has little local support.
This is typical. It is a time-tested technique to savage community activists when they organise and lead local people. But pictures don't lie and local reports in Hindi-language newspapers talk of numerous rallies with more than a thousand people each. A German documentary maker has, in fact, shown the very opposition on film that Mr. Jolly says doesn't exist. Public channels in Germany aired Nichts geht ohne Coca-Cola during the recent World Cup.
He doesn't talk of Kerala where the Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada lies closed because of the opposition from the people. Remember that Coke had dismissed the opposition in Kerala as a "handful of extremists" but the protests were widespread and touched lives.
Fact V: Mr. Jolly says the recent report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) does not provide conclusive evidence of concentration of pesticides in soft drinks and that top labs in Britain and India have declared Coke safe.
Well, the CSE, which has a fine reputation and gets grudging respect even from the government, has seriously questioned the tests done by the British lab. In matters of health, unless a company can conclusively prove its products are safe and shake off all the allegations fully, doubts will remain. The jury is still out on this and questions will continue to be asked.
And don't forget that the government of India confirmed in January 2004 that Coke and Pepsi products contained excessive levels of pesticides after a report by the Joint Parliamentary Committee led by Sharad Pawar. Now the state of Karnataka is suing Coke because of pesticide levels. It's a different matter all together, as CSE points out, "the [current] minister of health is clearly more concerned with industrial health -- and not people's health"
Fact VI: Mr. Jolly says that shipments of Coke products were rejected by US Food and Drug Administration because of inadequate labelling and not because they were harmful to consumers.
According to information from the US FDA, a shipment a shipment of Fanta sent by Coca-Cola India from Mumbai to the US was rejected on May 19 on the grounds that it contained 'unsafe colour'. The regulator said the 'article appears to be, or to bear or contain a colour additive which is unsafe.' On June 10, 2005, the Financial Express reported that the FDA rejected consignments of Coca-Cola India, Hindustan Lever, Procter & Gamble and Britannia on grounds that they are 'unsafe' or not conforming to US laws. Authorized or not, imports of Coca-Cola beverages made in India have been stopped at the US border because they are "unsafe" or contained "unsafe color" and not only because of labelling issues. This is the FDA talking, not me.
Needless to say, it would be easy to find something truly insignificant to pick on again
-- and impute imaginary "biases" to those who raise pertinent questions in the public interest
-- and bury the the real issue. Instead of doubting CSE's credentials or assuming that all who raise questions are some sort of unreconstructed leftists or paranoid swadehis, Coke should take a clear-headed look at the whole controversy, address all issues and come clean.
Things then might actually go better for Coca Cola.