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Why the Coke-Pepsi boycott in Tamil Nadu is a good thing


Nityanand Jayaraman writes: Coke and Pepsi are the best-known agents of commodification of water. It’s unethical and immoral for a resource that is so vital to life to be commodified. So, every nail in the coffins of companies involved in selling water –like Coke, Pepsi, Nestle, Tata and so on– is a nail well driven.

Coke and Pepsi are the best-known agents of water privatisation and commodification of water.

Nityanand Jayaraman, The News  Minute

Boycotts and campaigns provide moments for analysis. The fact that this conversation is being had is in itself a positive fall-out of the decision by some consumers and traders in Tamil Nadu to boycott drinks manufactured by the US multinationals. Given that this decision is itself a consequence of the recently concluded Jallikattu protests, it corroborates the reading of many commentators that the Jallikattu mobilisation was not just about Jallikattu, but about a number of other frustrations bothering the people of Tamil Nadu. Key among those are the issues of drought, water scarcity, agrarian distress and how we use water.

The real worth of the boycott will depend on what more will be done, and how this opportunity for conversations and actions will be used. Some trade associations that called for the boycott on grounds of water scarcity, exploitation and health seem to have recommended local soft drink brands as an alternative. They should withdraw that recommendation in the interests of consistency and to prevent the discussion from getting mired in defending this indefensible suggestion. If water depletion is the issue, then the nationality of the entity that is exploiting the water for profit should not matter. Ditto with health – sugared drinks sold by multinationals are as unhealthy as those sold by good Tamil companies. To append nationalities and nationalisms to corporations is to not know that corporations owe no loyalty to any jurisdiction.

Barring this inconsistency, here’s why I think targeting Coke and Pepsi makes immense sense and offers a valuable opportunity.

First, Coke and Pepsi are the best-known agents of water privatisation and commodification of water. It is unethical and immoral for a resource that is so vital to life to be commodified. So, every nail in the coffins of companies involved in selling water — like Coke, Pepsi, Nestle, Tata, Bisleri, Parle and so on — is a nail well driven.

Coke and Pepsi stand accused of questionable practices, from labour rule and union busting to advertising practices and water profiteering. They make excellent poster-boys of the big, bad corporate and therefore good actors to frame the issue of water scarcity as an actionable one of “private greed causing the decline of a valuable public resource.” Coke and Pepsi are by no means the only ones that are so targeted. In Delhi, people washing cars using water hoses during drought years, the water theme parks, IPL matches and golf courses are all also actors that reinforce this frame of private greed and misuse of a public resource like water.

The boycott may not in itself avert the water crisis. But it spotlights this crisis and allows for numerous conversations such as this. For helping us do that, a big thanks to Coke and Pepsi.

To make this boycott go beyond symbolism, there are things that we can begin attending to:

1. Make Agriculture Water-Efficient: Agriculture is the largest consumer of water. Modern green revolution agriculture, which is what is practised most widely today, is intensive and exploitative of water resources. Fortunately, agriculture can be made water-smart. There are ways of producing more crop for every drop. Intervening in agriculture will require changing cropping techniques, changing crops and changing the manner in which crops move from farm to plate. Thanks to a vibrant organic farming movement and iconic campaigners like the late G. Nammalwar, Tamil Nadu has already made significant progress in this front without government support. If the government joined the effort with inputs and technical support, and marketing assistance, transformation could be rapid. Were this to happen, borewell extraction of water would go down, electricity consumption for pumping would go down, pesticide and fertiliser manufacturing would go down, and the associated pollution of ground and surface waters due to fertiliser and pesticide run-off will go down, and the quality of our food will go up. One stone, many birds.

2. For the sake of consistency, and to loudly make a statement against commodification of water, avoid not just Coke and Pepsi, but all bottled drinks including bottled water.

3. Arrest water pollution: Industries and activities that pollute water sources should be identified and stopped. For this to happen, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board needs to be strengthened; they need to be shielded from political interference; they need to be made answerable to you and me; and it must be possible for us to hold their officers personally liable in case of demonstrable negligence or corruption.

4. Industries too can vastly improve their water efficiencies. Here too a system of incentives and disincentives can help industries adopt water efficient production methods. The government should avoid promoting water-intensive industries.

5. Recycle sewage water: Cities like Chennai discharge hundreds of millions of litres of untreated or part-treated sewage into our waterways every day. This spoils the waterbodies and groundwater. Equally importantly, it is a waste of water. If sewage can be treated sufficiently for use in industrial purposes, water usage by industrial use can be reduced.

6. Rain-water harvesting is poorly understood. It is not just what you do with your rooftop, but what you refrain from doing to the natural and ancient manmade rainwater harvesting structures like ponds, tanks and other wetlands, and they decide if we are being effective. Also, beyond roof-top harvesting, public opinion should be mobilised to recover landscapes that once sustained a healthy hydrology. Again, Tamil Nadu has no dearth of water warriors who can teach others the magic of bringing water back to places that haven’t seen water in decades.

7. Join the campaign against sand-mining: This is an excellent time to do that. The youthful energy on display in Tamil Nadu can easily be taken on the sand mining mafia, and strengthen the hands of activists campaigning against mining at great risk to their lives.

8. Protect the forests of Western and Eastern Ghats, and the birthplaces of our rivers. The Cauvery, which is Tamil Nadu’s lifeline, is born in the misty heights of Kodagu, in Karnataka. All the tributaries to Cauvery are born in the Western Ghats. The Karnataka farmers and Tamil Nadu farmers, and every one of us who eat the food grown by these farmers, should join hands to protect the Ghats and other watersheds.

Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and social activist

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