Many times during the day our lives may intersect, in either positive or negative ways, with the lives of people in distant corners of the earth. We go about our daily tasks, too often oblivious to the fact that our world today is, indeed, very small and what we do or do not do may quickly touch the lives of people far away, leaving them struggling for survival. Traveling around Asia, I am often confronted with this uncomfortable reality.
I have long enjoyed sitting down to an ice-cold Coke on a hot, humid afternoon. Despite it not being a very healthy drink, I find it refreshing and energizing.
In Plachimada, India, villagers sit down in front of a Coke bottling plant every day. The mercury soars high as the dry heat of the summer saps their strength. They do not refresh themselves with a Coke. For that matter, they have a difficult time even refreshing themselves with a cool drink of water. For years they have been involved in a David and Goliath struggle for the right to one of the most basic of human needs: water. Our lives intersect with theirs each time we sip a soft drink.
For the most part, the people of Plachimada are Dalits (formerly untouchables), Adivasis (indigenous peoples), landless agricultural workers and struggling women. They live off the land, raising crops and depending on their water wells for the life-giving liquid we all require for survival.
In 1998, a large bottling plant was set up by Coke in their community with the promise of jobs. In truth there were a few jobs offered to the community people - mainly jobs as sweepers and carriers. People from other parts of India were brought in to manage the better-paying jobs. That was a severe disappointment to the people, but what really angered them and drove them into their "David and Goliath" struggle was that as the bottling plant moved into full swing, their precious water sources began to dry up.
The wells they had depended on for so many generations suddenly turned as dry as their parched rice fields in the dry season. Since Coke had also bought the rights to part of the river that flowed past the villages, the natives were not allowed to draw water from that source for their use. Downstream, where they could fetch water, they often found the river so polluted and smelly could not be used. This created an extremely serious problem for the women who now had to walk several miles each day to carry the water needed by their family. This is hard work for women who already carried the heavy burden of caring for the family and doing housework as well as doing farm work.
Worse, when water did appear in their wells, it had a soapy film on it and after bathing people became sick. One visitor to the area recently said villagers have discovered that the bottling plant has drilled deep bore wells into which they discard their chemical wastes. The water and even the soil around the villages are now so polluted people cannot use them.
In 2002 the villagers began their protest against Coke by staging a sit-in at the gates of the factory. They continued their protest until 2003 when the courts forced Coke to stop production. But Coke has refused to pay compensation to the villagers or to clean up the polluted water and soil. So the protest goes on and has now been in progress for more than 1,600 days. The people vow that they will not give up until they get justice. They depend on their land and water, resources which they say are a gift from God, and they want Coke to take responsibility to return these resources to them in good condition.
During the investigation into Coke's activities in Plachimada it also was discovered that their bottled drinks were contaminated with pesticides, something the local people had long claimed. According to the villagers, if they sprayed Coke onto their plants, the insects died. One can imagine what chemicals are building up in the bodies of the people who consume these beverages.
I no longer find that a Coke will refresh me on a hot summer day. When I feel the need for one, I think of those women sitting in front of the bottling plant, demanding that Coke return their clean water and their productive soil. If they can carry on this protest for more than one thousand five hundred days, I can easily do without a Coke to stand in solidarity with them. At least I can go to the fridge and get a cold glass of clean, fresh water. Hopefully the day will come when they too can again go to their water well and draw up a bucket of the beautiful, clear liquid that keeps us all alive.