This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Indians who won't drink Coke

There is no justice in this world, if there was all advertisers would be forced to walk in public wearing sandwich boards with the text of their adverts written in large letters and the words "I am responsible for this" scrawled on their foreheads in marker pen. Advertisers are the pushers of the most pointless crap that invades our lives and the only creative thing they have ever done is steal the word "creative" to describe what they do.

In the recent Coca Cola advert a 30 something woman walks through a crowd of people on the street singing some life affirming Whitney Huston meets Tracey Chapman dirge handing out bottles of Coke to complete strangers, which she produces ready opened from her hand bag. And this is supposed to make us buy a sugary drink. Try doing that in real life. Try singing loudly in South London walking up to a complete stranger and offer them an opened bottle of drink from your handbag. And when you've tried it let me know what hospital you are in, I'll bring the grapes.

In India Coke's adverts are not so much inept as cruelly ironic. In one of them a group of women walk in the heat to a village well, they look disappointed when a stranger starts to pull up a bucket of water. Suddenly the stranger reveals himself to be a well known Bollywood star and the bucket turns out to be full of bottles of Coca Cola. Hurrah let the party begin. The irony here is that you can buy a bottle of coke in an Indian village that has no clean water.

Nowhere is this more true than in Plachimada in Kerala, which I visited on a trip with Action Aid. Here Coca Cola's subsidiary company the Hindustan Coca Cola Company opened a bottling plant in 2000 and promptly dug 6 bore wells. You might have thought that some bright spark would have questioned the opening of a highly water intensive industry in a drought area but both the national and state government eagerly bought into the notion that a Coca Cola factory equates to "development".

These little glitches crop up every now and then in "development". Back in the Marcos era in the Philippines, the US Ex/Im Bank (the US government export credit agency) backed the building of a nuclear power station in an earthquake region near a still active volcano. Thankfully it has never been given a license to operate.

With dull predictability the local inhabitants noticed their water diminishing. Wells went dry and what water there was became undrinkable, a study by the district medical officer concluded "This water is unfit for drinking." Faced with no local water people have to walk long distances to the nearest clean wells. In the excellent BBC Radio 4 report on the Coca Cola plant one woman was quoted as having to travel 7 kms to get water. Coke are reduced to bussing in tankers of clean water to the village. Strangely enough some people have not exhibited much gratitude to the company for their largesse.

Thousands have been affected. People I spoke to said they used to earn about a £1 a day as harvesters and they used to get about 20 days work a month. Now they are lucky if they get 5 days work a month, as the local crops have failed. They felt they had no option but to fight the company and set up a 24 hour a day vigil in a shelter opposite the plant. At the end of the month they will have been there for 647 days.

In 1950's style logic Coke's response has been to claim that the protests have been the work of Marxist agitators. Maybe their advertisers find some Ealing Comedy type Indian Peasants to appear in the next ad, standing in front of the bottling plant saying "It's an 'onour to be oppressed by a company such as Coca Cola and I don' mind a goin' thirsty either. Not like them there whingin' Marxists and their politically motivated thirst!"

Coke are mounting a legal fight to stay in Plachimada , despite the local council refusing to reissue them with a new license to operate. But the resistance to Coke is growing, in Tamil Nadu the neighbouring state to Kerala, Coke have built a plant in a joint deal with a local sugar mill company, thousands protested before the plant has even been opened and as yet it remains closed.

After the front page news that the level of pesticides in Pepsi and Coke in India is about 3 times the level of that permitted in the USA and Europe it is fairly safe to say that Coke have an image problem that the advertisers might not be able to solve.

A new report by Christian Aid "Behind the Mask The real face of corporate social responsibility" contains a case study of the Plachimada Coke plant.


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