The Coca-Cola Story

Water Privatisation

Dhrubajyoti Ghosh

The word ''mission' normally connotes welfare but things have changed; especially with recent missions around water. A broad contextual reference before focusing on the Kolkata Metropolitan Area sets Sandipto Mitra's lucid and well-organised *book on water privatisation apart. The book begins with a legal discourse on right to water and follows it up with the year 2002 version of National Water Policy, in which the author found the seeds of privatisation. The author then follows it up with an expose on the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

Anything that the World Bank attempts to do is a mission and that is where the word has lost its welfare connotation. Missions, these days, hide rent seekers' dreams. Having made the point, the author gets back to the basics and discusses different modes of privatisation. The study then concentrates on what happened in the Kolkata Municipal Authority, having engaged in an official discourse on water supply situation and explains the quiet steps towards privatisation: water metering, water tax and the myth of willingness to pay study. All willingness-to-pay studies are most entertaining! Then comes the Coca-Cola hoax; all about serving society by constructing rainwater harvesting structures.

The best part of the book is the way it exposes the meaninglessness of corporate social projects. On August 23, 2007, the then Mayor of Kolkata, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, dedicated a 12-lakh litre rainwater harvesting project at the Diamond Beverage Plant, to the community in Taratala, Kolkata, amidst great fanfare. Diamond Beverage Pvt. Ltd is a franchise partner of Coca-Cola India in West Bengal. Fanfare is never a problem for those who budget for it as a part of production cost. Few simple facts and calculation presented by the author exploded the myth.

To confuse the buyer, the milkman adds milk enough to hide the amount of water he sells at the price of milk. Coca-Cola India in partnership with UN-HABITAT is facilitating clean drinking water project in 150 schools in West Bengal: 'The company has already commissioned rainwater harvesting structures in 20 schools spread in five districts of Kolkata, Bankura, Purulia, Birbhum and Darjeeling. All the rainwater harvesting projects can together harvest nearly 80 lakh litres of rain water.' Of course, these camouflage what Coca-Cola wants to hide, which is apparent from the findings of the author's research. The major points he has made are :
1.    Coca-Cola used 290 billion litres of water in 2006 alone and that is enough to meet the entire world's drinking water needs for 10 days.
2.   Its annual advertising budget is $2.4 billion.
3.   It has a $20-million global water conservation project (less than 10 per cent of its advertising budget) with WWF (World Wide Fund) for Nature.
4.   Teri, funded and sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company named it as the one of the most responsible companies in India in 2001. Teri organized Earth Day 2003 with support from Coca-Cola.
5.   In Mehdiganj (reminds one of Plachimada, where the battle against Coca-Cola was far more lethal and won a favourable order from the Kerala High Court) - 20 km from the holy city of Varanasi - at the rainwater harvesting project set up by Coca-Cola, the amount of water recharge through the rainwater harvesting project is only eight percent of the water that it extracted.

Leftist parliamentarians, legislators and councillors are well known for making erudite statements in their respective houses. Hard work, knowledge and acute political sense lead to some of such historical statements. It is strange that the erstwhile Mayor of Kolkata did not get this homework support from his party or did not do it himself. As a result, he picked up a wrong flag; one that did not belong to where Communists lay their fealty. That they lost the elections in West Bengal is a different matter. Meanwhile, no wonder that Kolkatans are paying handsomely for branded water. They are waiting for the day when children may wear Pepsi and Cola T-shirts because they will be free of cost to their parents. Welcome to this new social construct.

The book has not been able to look beyond water privatisation though. Most of these discourses lose their focus and miss the hidden agenda of the water moghuls. This is what Jerry Mander, whom New York Times described as 'the patriarch of the anti-globalisation movement', called 'privatization of consciousness'. The power of advertising goes 'well beyond the amount of money spent,' said Mander. Decadence touches the nadir when one finds that advertisements these days target children. Big screen sikanders, who pay taxes that sometimes exceed the budget of minor municipalities, are on display expressing heavenly satisfaction after drinking Pepsi or a Coca-Cola. Children know what they should aspire to.

There is the famous story of the Ethiopian mother feeding Pepsi to her minor because she had no money to buy the food the kid needed. She was sure that Pepsi had the requisite nutrient. There is nothing wrong for a celluloid hero to earn in billions but does he ponder how ethical it is to misdirect children towards a fatal choice?

Vol. 46, No. 24, Dec 22 -28, 2013

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