It’s farmers vs Coca Cola again, this time in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh. Even as several villages in the area grapple with acute drinking water shortage and farmers seek better irrigation facilities, the government has allotted 2,150 cubic metre or 21.5 lakh litres of water from the river Krishna per day to M/s Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Pvt Ltd at its plant in Atmakuru village. The government order (GO Ms. No. 26), issued on March 26, 2010, has triggered protests by farmer bodies. The CPI, CPI(M) and the Telugu Desam Party say the state government is compromising the farmers’ right to water by giving it to a beverage company.
Coca Cola, which has been operating in Atmakuru for over a decade now, earlier relied on groundwater for its operations. It sought permission to use water from the Krishna Water Main Canal in December 2007. Permission now granted, it has left locals fuming. According to the GO, Coca Cola can use the 2,150 cu m a day for 10 years. The annual outflow of water will be 0.02 tmc (thousand million cubic feet). The firm will lay its own pipeline and water meter, and will be charged industrial rates (Rs 4,500 per million gallon). The Krishna Water Main canal is part of the Buckingham canal, which is specifically meant to meet irrigation and drinking water requirements in Prakasam and Guntur districts.
According to agricultural experts, 1 tmc of water can irrigate about 10,000 acres per annum. Therefore 0.02 tmc can irrigate 200 acres per annum. This is the first time a beverage company is being allowed to draw water from a canal specifically meant for irrigation and drinking. However, both principal secretary, irrigation, S.K. Joshi, and the Hindustan Coca Cola spokesperson term the quantity of water as negligible. Joshi says the allotment of water will not affect the upper and lower riparian rights along the canal. “Besides,” he adds, “the firm will not be allowed to draw water for three months during the closure of the canal.”
Farmers, however, are unwilling to buy the “negligible” explanation. “If, as they say, the quantity is so less, why is Coca Cola so eager to lay a pipeline at its own cost,” asks cpi’s Guntur district secretary, Muppala Nageswara Rao, who staged a protest outside the Coca Cola plant earlier this month along with farmers. “About 15 villages around the Coca Cola factory have been seeking potable water from the government under the protected drinking water scheme but to no avail. Places like Atmakuru, Revendrapadu, Pedavadlapudi, Chinnavadlapudi, Ippatam, Tadepalli, Duggirala and Tenali (rural) are struggling with water shortage. Giving all these people the short shrift, the government has issued this GO. Does the government want its rural poor to drink beverages sold by Coke?”
TDP MLAs from Guntur P. Pulla Rao and D. Narendra Kumar wonder why the government is being so generous to Coca Cola which “does business in selling water and beverages whose quality itself has been suspect for long”. Kumar says the GO has set a dangerous precedent that threatens the water security of farmers and others. “If Coca Cola wanted only a ‘small quantity’ of water, why couldn’t it ask the Mangalagiri municipality (which would have refused a higher volume)? Moreover, the company might even draw more than the allotted 0.02 tmc. If it draws 1 or 2 tmc, is there any authority to oversee this?” asks Kumar.
Pulla Rao says it’s astonishing that the government could favour a company that has faced legal suits in Kerala. “As an industry, it won’t even serve the people like, say, a power unit would. We demand that the GO be withdrawn immediately,” he says. TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu also spoke out against the move at a farmers’ protest rally on Prakasam barrage. “Is there surplus water in the Krishna delta?” he asked. “The state is supplying canal water to a commercial enterprise which sells it right back to the people in the form of mineral water and soft drinks at higher prices.”
Hanumantha Rao shows affected corn
The company’s use of groundwater till now, farmers in the area suspect, has led to a fall in water tables and affected soil fertility. J. Hanumantha Rao, a small farmer in Pedavadlapudi, says his crop of corn has been affected badly over the last three years. “My yield has fallen by 30 per cent. The plants, which are supposed to stand for 120 days or so, now attain fruition in 80 days’ time. The size and quality of the corn has been affected as a result,” he says. Bhavana Srinivasa Rao, secretary, Guntur District Rythu Sangam, says that soil salinity has increased in the last five years. “We strongly feel that the company is dumping untreated waste water into the ground and is overshooting its permissible limit of groundwater drawal,” says Rao. Other farmers in Pedavadlapudi and Atmakuru—A. Radhakrishna, J. Sambasiva Rao, B. Venkateswara Rao—complain of similar things. “A white sheen is seen on our crop of lady’s finger and even the soil. This is a sure pointer to pollution of groundwater,” says Venkateswara Rao.
Many people in this village say the drinking water is really bad. “We all buy water for cooking and drinking from a drinking water project run by Naandi Foundation,” says Srinivasa Rao. What the villagers don’t know, however, is that Coca Cola runs this community water initiative along with Naandi in two villages of Guntur district.
There have been murmurs even within the Congress against the canal water being supplied to Coca Cola. Deputy speaker Nadendla Manohar has said it was incorrect to allow Coca Cola to draw Krishna water from the canal and has spoken out against industry minister Kanna Lakshminarayana’s decision.
Meanwhile, Deepak Jolly, vice president (public affairs and communications), Coca Cola, protests against the “misinformation” campaign by some political parties. “It has been Coca Cola’s policy to combine usage of ground and surface water. Coca Cola is a respected company which operates as per the laws of the land. We do a lot of CSR in AP. Coca Cola is one of the largest buyers of mangoes from farmers for Maaza,” says Jolly. What would he rather have? If they can’t have water, let them have Coke, aye?