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Just as The Hindu newspaper declared 'corporations collectively can make India a better place for every citizen' in March 2006,50 campaigners working to expose the harmful impacts of Coca-Cola's operations on local communities in a number of Indian states had been stepping up efforts in India and abroad. Over the past four years, issues of groundwater depletion and contamination and high pesticide levels in products have bubbled to the surface, leading to the closure of a Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada, Kerala, in March 2004 and making the soft-drinks giant's name synonymous with the notion of corporate irresponsibility in households across the country.
The release of Coca-Cola's first corporate responsibility review in the UK in January and its entry into the United Nations Global Compact initiative were marred by a series of high-profile actions against the world's largest brand name in the first quarter of 2006. While Coca-Cola's report stated that the company is'putting corporate responsibility at the heart of our business strategy',51 Coca-Cola: The Alternative Report,52 produced by London-based campaign group War on Want, focused on droughts and contaminated water supplies in Indian states including Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala, alleged to be caused by Coca-Cola plants there.
The company was nominated for a 'Public Eye' award at the World Economic Forum in Davos for environmental irresponsibility53 in January, just as the University of Michigan added its name to the growing list of US colleges boycotting all Coca-Cola products. In February, court proceedings were brought against the Indian franchise of the company in relation to the suspicious death of the chairman of a village council opposing a new plant in Tamil Nadu.54 In March, a long-standing campaign in the UK demanding that the service provider to the National Union of Students boycott all Coca-Cola products in universities came to a head as a motion for a full boycott was proposed at the annual general meeting of the union.55
And, perhaps more worryingly for Coca-Cola, a popular Indian television yoga guru has declared that their drinks should be used for cleaning toilets, not drinking.56 Swami Ramdev, who has brought yoga into the homes of millions of Indians in India and abroad, referred to the high sugar content and the controversy regarding high levels of pesticides found in the soft drinks.
Coca-Cola's counter-arguments that lack of rain is the main cause of groundwater depletion57 have been accepted by some government and court officials, but the company's reputation with markets at home and abroad will need to be rebuilt. In terms of corporate scandals in India, Coca-Cola's infamy across the world has become second only to the campaign to hold Union Carbide (now incorporated into Dow Chemicals) accountable for the chemical explosion at a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in 1984, which killed 20,000 Bhopal residents and affected the health of a further 100,000.58
In comparison, the Tata group, a home-grown conglomerate of 93 companies that make everything from cars and steel to software and consulting systems, are often quoted as examples of best practice of CSR in India, due to their self-proclamation that 'an implicit sense of ethical business conduct has been the cornerstone of the Tata way in the corporate governance sphere'.59 In 2005, its revenue grew from $17 billion to $24 billion.
An ex-employee of Coca-Cola India, who worked as a CSR executive, states, 'CSR is a distant dream in India ... CSR is more an "extra activity" that has to be squeezed in to "look good".'61 The key opportunity for India now-as with other low-income countries-is not the numbers of companies talking about CSR and blindly replicating the current 'add-on' Western model focusing on public relations as Coca-Cola has tried to do, but the creation of a home-grown, meaningful, systemic form of CSR that addresses local issues, challenges prejudice and asserts India's position as a leading player in the global economy of the future.
At a London conference about the future of CSR across the world in March 2006, Jane Nelson, former advisor to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, warned, 'If India and China don't get it right then it doesn't really matter what we do in the rest of the world.'62 While her comment should not mean we ignore the fact that so many in the West have got it wrong already, it reflects the realisation that these two very different, vast countries housing nearly half of the world's population will shape the contours of the economic and political landscape in coming decades.
Given the scale of the challenges in India, the corporate responsibility agenda in India must be a systemic one. Therefore it must work to strengthen governance in the country, not sidestepping official processes citing their corrupt and over-bureaucratic nature in justification. It must address the impacts of small and medium-sized businesses instead of giving special concessions to foreign multinational interests, while giving India the confidence to stand up to global neoliberal processes that will not work for the benefit of the majority of its people-as attempted in the making of cheaper generic antiretroviral drugs for HIV and Aids sufferers, which was eventually in 2005 overruled by the intellectual property protection agreements propelled by the World Trade Organisation.63
India's unique social patchwork of families, communities, NGOs and small and medium-sized enterprises means that such a CSR model will have to look beyond just the urban areas, to incorporate the concerns of local communities with historical ties to land, village councils (panchyats) and grass-roots civil-society organisations as well as an understanding of how caste, religion and gender inequalities have pervaded through society to replicate power differentials over the decades.
50 Prabhudev Konana, 'Towards corporate social responsibility', The Hindu, 9 March 2006; www.thehindu.com/2006/03/09/stories/2006030905431000.htm.
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