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.
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.
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 Photo/Pat Crowe II)
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."
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