Residents of Mehdiganj, a village 20 kilometers outside Varanasi, have been fighting Coca-Cola for the last ten years.

Features Thursday, July 10, 2014 - 05:30
Nayantara Narayanan| June 20, 2014| 6.40 pm IST Coca-Cola today got an interim stay on the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board’s order to the company to shut its plant in Mehdiganj down. The National Green Tribunal allowed the company to continue its existing operations but restrained it from making any moves towards expansion of the facility. The state pollution control board ordered the shutdown on June 6th on the grounds that Coca-Cola has not obtained a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Central Ground Water Authority (CWGA). The board also accused the company of deliberately trying to mislead the board by consistently reporting its industrial discharge as 600 kiloliters per day (KLD) while it had increased production from 20,000 to 36,000 cases per day. Residents of Mehdiganj, a village 20 kilometers outside Varanasi, have been fighting Coca-Cola for the last ten years. Groundwater in the area’s Arajiline block has fallen dramatically ever since the company opened its plant in Mehdjiganj in 1999. Last year the community strongly protested Coca-Cola’s plans to expand its operation five times over. Coca Cola had applied to the state pollution control board to increase its groundwater consumption from 50,000 cubic meters per to 250,000 per year. In December last year local authorities passed and eviction notice to Coca Cola saying that the plant occupied its Mehdiganj site illegally. The company got the order stayed. In its appeal to the National Green Tribunal, Coca Cola contended that it had not violated any law, as it did not need an NOC from the CGWA for its operations. However, the tribunal has observed that there was no NOC requirement when the plant was established in 1999 since the groundwater water levels in the area at that time was declared as ‘safe’. In 2009, a CGWA study classified the area as a dark zone and found levels to be ‘critical’. The CGWA revised its guidelines in 2012 and Coca Cola’s application for an NOC under the new guidelines has been pending with the authority. Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, an organization that has been involved in the campaign against Coca Cola since the beginning, says that he thinks the plant expansion will never be allowed to take place since the community has been very actively protesting the move. However, whether the fate of the existing plant depends on the legal case ahead. The campaign in Mehdiganj has two calls in addition to the shut down. “There is definitely the call for compensation to affected people in that area for depleted ground water and pollution as well, which has been documented by the central pollution control board as well UP pollution control board. There is also the issue that we hold Coca Cola responsible for the just transition – the rehabilitation, training and relocation of workers, including contract workers, who will lose their jobs as a result of the demanded shut down,” said Srivastava. Srivastava says the fight against Coca Cola in Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan has been a major factor in the Central Ground Water Authority issuing guidelines to evaluate proposals for groundwater extraction in 2012. Srivastava feels the legal case over the Mehdiganj plant will also be important. “I do see a legal fight which will be very important because it will educate the other cases in India as well when it comes to industrial use of ground water particularly in water-stressed areas,” he said.
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