Life shouldn't be like this – the fight to beat the multinationals

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The struggle of Indian people in the southern state of Kerala against Pepsi and Coca-Cola products reached a new stage when on 22 September, in a court case brought by the multinationals, the Kerala High Court overturned a state ban on their production and sale. In response, supporters of the ban smashed stocks of Pepsi Cola and attacked eight lorries ferrying Coca-Cola. The Kerala state government has said it will appeal to the Supreme Court.

Kerala banned the sale and production of Pepsi and Coca-Cola products in August in response to a recent study showing dangerously high levels of pesticide residues in Indian soft drinks. Seven other Indian states have banned the sale of Coca-Cola and Pepsi drinks in schools and government buildings.

The pesticide study was published by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a high profile NGO. The results show that Indian soft drinks contain pesticides at levels on average 24 times higher than the safety standard agreed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). The study looked at 57 samples from 25 bottling plants throughout India, all of which contained a cocktail of three to six different pesticides. In one sample of Coca-Cola the CSE found Lindane, a confirmed carcinogen, at a concentration 140 times the BIS standard. Chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin, known to cross the placenta in pregnant women, was found in all the samples at an average level of 47 times higher than the BIS standard.

The CSE first revealed the high levels of pesticides in soft drinks in 2003. At that time a Joint Parliamentary Committee recommended compulsory standards for pesticide residues in soft drinks. Although these standards have been agreed, the Ministry of Health has yet to implement them. The CSE has accused the Ministry of colluding with the cola companies, which together control 80% of the Indian soft drinks market. The cola companies are lobbying for regulations to be restricted to the raw materials that they use - water and sugar – and not to their final product.

In imposing the ban the Kerala government also pointed to the devastating impact of Coca-Cola’s bottling plant in Plachimada, Kerala, which has caused severe water shortages and soil contamination in the surrounding area. Large scale protests succeeded in closing the Plachimada plant in March 2004, and similar grassroots campaigns exist against plants throughout India.

Meanwhile the US government has written to Indian officials urging them to treat the companies fairly. Clearly the drinks giants and the US government think it’s ‘unfair’ for the Indian people to set their own regulations to protect public health and the environment. What else would you expect from a company like Coca-Cola, implicated in dirty deals around the globe and already subject to a boycott because of its collusion in the murder of eight trade unionists in Colombia?

Coca-Cola’s Hindi slogan is Life ho toh aisi – Life should be like this. Thankfully there are many Indian activists who don’t agree, and they are fighting to make their voices heard.
Sam Rae

FRFI 193 October / November 2006