by Naeem Mohaiemen
Several years ago, I was leafing through a health magazine and came across a piece about Coca-Cola. According to the story, Coke, like many other soft drinks, contains additives that eat away at tooth enamel. Ever since then, I've avoided all soft drinks. This habit presents an etiquette problem whenever I visit Bangladesh. Along with milky cups of tea, Coke-with-ice is the most frequently offered drink to visitors. My refusal of Coke is often seen an snobbishness, or some faddish "health consciousness."
This subcontinental love affair with Coke may soon change drastically. If campaigners assembled at this week's World Social Forum in Mumbai, India are successful, Coca-Cola will soon be hit by a global boycott of unprecedented scale and ferocity. Although the Indian Campaign to Hold Coke Accountable has already been in motion for a year, the WSF meet is globalizing the project. At issue are Coca-Cola's production practices in India, which are draining out vast amounts of public groundwater, turning farming communities into virtual deserts. Completing the cycle of abuse, the plants are also pumping out toxic sludge as waste product. The controversy has been aggravated by recent tests that showed levels of toxic substances in Indian Coke, which are higher than FDA-approved standards for Coke-additives in the US.
Organizers consider Coca-Cola to be one of the most abusive transnationals (TNC) operating in India today. They are particularly irked by the way that Coke, a huge foreign investor in India, has used its commercial clout to bully the government into bending the rules regarding local ownership.
After a year of Indian protests, Coca-Cola's PR department simply said they were the "target of a handful of extremist protesters." For good measure, the corporate website says, "Local communities have welcomed our business as a good corporate neighbor."
But at the end of the WSF, Coke may be facing an organized campaign that cannot be easily dismissed. One of the key benefits of highlighting the Coke case at the WSF meet is the opportunity to link up with similar cases worldwide and turn the project into a global boycott. Since international capital benefits from a borderless world, activists want to create a model where their clout is also increased by the free flow of information between world community groups. In the process they are linking up with campaigners in Colombia, who have targeted Coke for very different abuses. At WSF, the campaign has generated strong feedback from American and European organizers, many of whom see the red-and-whites of Coke as a symbol for businesses that work without accountability.