Note: This story was originally published in, and is copyrighted to, the German magazine DIE WELT. Coca-Cola Journey is republishing it with permission.

It is often stated that Western beverage groups pillage the water sources of the Third World. However, if one investigates the accusations on site, one discovers another truth. A search for traces in India.

On a hot, dusty morning, Anju Devi was sitting in front of her hut and became a hero by accident. She turned into a rebel who started an argument with a worldwide group and, all of a sudden, attacked her public authorities as an activist. Overnight, she became an icon of a global campaign. Devi, a petite young woman who had never left her province before, although she was not aware of what actually happened to her.

Her new enemy is hiding at the edge of her village in a white hall, surrounded by walls and shrubs. Only the thin lettering above the gate reveals who it is: “Coca-Cola”. The company operates a factory in the settlement, fills .33-liter glass bottles on a twisted conveyor belt, 600 per minute. And each one of them is a problem.

This is at least how the activists, who are regularly here in Mehdiganj, Northern India, see it. The village has become a symbol for them. An allegory in their fight against the exploitation by groups. They say Coca-Cola is robbing the village of its groundwater. That the company pumps so much liquid from the soil that only crumbling lumps remain for the locals. While the Americans mixed their soft drinks, the wells were drying up, the cattle were dying of thirst and the harvest was destroyed. Mehdiganj, a community, dried up by ruthless managers? This is the story the activists tell – and Anju Devi helps involuntarily to propagate it.

It is the story of a global theft of resources. Of a rich West that pillages the sources of the Third World. Of international companies on a foray. Accusations of this kind have been around for a long time. “The groups have discovered water as a profitable business,” says Greenpeace. The German World Peace Service operates an entire website under the title of water grabbing. The popular TV documentary “Bottled life” accuses Nestle of drying out villages in Pakistan. Numerous blogs are writing about a global “beverage mafia.” But how much of it is true?

Probably some of it. Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Danone and Nestle – they all compete for the best sources of the planet, fight for production licenses and building sites, strive for higher sales volumes and increased margins. The environment, and that’s obvious, is hardly treated with care. In many places there are, therefore, actually problems.

However, in India of all countries, which often serves as a favorite example for environmentalists and anti-globalists, because water scarcity is extreme here, the accusations seem to be untrue.

In Mehdiganj at Anju Devi, one finds first indications of this. Whoever wants to pay her a visit, must follow a narrow sand path. On the right side rice farmers are wading through their fields, on the left buffalos are browsing. After several hundred meters, huts made of clay and bricks can be seen. Devi waits in front of the last one, wearing a silk garment, her black hair wrapped in a scarf. She is not a random person in Mehdiganj. The inhabitants have elected the 32-year-old to the village council. Devi is involved when it has to be decided where a new road is to be laid or a new stable is to be built. She cares about the small things in everyday life. Normally.

In November 2015, however, she all of a sudden attracted attention far beyond Mehdiganj. Together with 14 colleagues, Devi wrote a letter that made her reach a place which she only knows from hearsay: the Internet. It is a pamphlet. The topic: Coca-Cola. The known story. She points out that since the group has been on site, the soil no longer offers any water, only dust. The factory is accused of depriving people from their basis of existence. The addressee of the letter was Narendra Damadardas Modi, India’s Prime Minister. Modi was asked by Devi to instruct the local authorities to close the thing at last.

The India Resource Center, a relief organization from California, published a press release online. Inhabitants of a village challenging the world’s largest soft drink producer – a nice story.

However, it seems to be invented, and is a lesson about the methods with which activists seem to work from time to time.

The day is sticky. Devi is sitting cross-legged under the leaves of a huge fern. “The letter,” she says. "To be honest, I do not exactly know what it is all about.” However, she remembers what happened at that time. How a man came to her village and said that the Coca-Cola factory was contaminating her water. How he demanded that the Company should be dealt a blow because it was damaging everybody, Mehdiganj, her province, the whole of India. And how he, the man, finally presented a document and asked for her signature.

“I simply did him a favor,” Devi says. She was not able to read the words because Devi is illiterate. And she does not even seem to be convinced. Water is actually a scarcity in Mehdiganj but is this the fault of Coca-Cola? Devi hesitates. She looks at the inhabitants of the village who have joined her, young people, with dirty hands who worked in the fields. “No” she then says, “I do not think so.”

The people in Mehdiganj have their doubts as far as the story about water grabbing is concerned. Although it sounds so coherent. In India, millions of people do not have access to clean sources, there are famines, because whole harvests are drying out. And on these withered plots  Coca-Cola operates 57 factories. There must be a relationship between all that.

However, if you travel to the country in order to investigate the accusations, if you drive to Mehdiganj in order to talk to the inhabitants about it, you find out that it is more complex. You all of a sudden find indications suggesting that the story might also go the other way round. That possibly a network of activists is conveying a distorted image. That there may be people who have an interest in finding a powerful culprit.

A man who could have such an interest is Amit Srivastava. He was the man who took the letter to Mehdiganj on that hot November day, found his way to the hut of Anju Devi and wanted to have her signature. Now Srivastava sits in a café in New Delhi. His black/grey hair is pleated, and he wears little rimmed glasses and a three-day beard. Yes, Srivastava confirms, he drafted the texts and uploaded them on the Internet. Because this is his only weapon in the conflict with the world groups: attention.

“The focus was no longer on the topic Coca-Cola,” says Srivastava. The last major coverage was in 2008, when 1,500 people from the area around the factory in Mehdiganj demonstrated. Srivastava helped at that time to organize the protest march. Some pretend that he did so with money. Srivastava says that he did so with consulting. He is the director of the India Resource Center. Together with another two activists, Sandeep Pandey and Nandlal Master, he leads the insurrection against the multi-nationals in India.

A total of 1,500 people. Can they all be wrong? Probably not. At least some of them are really suffering under Coca-Cola. Directly next to the factory the wells are empty. Black ducts which are lost in the ground. If you throw a stone into them you do not hear any plopping, but only a dead sound.

“For the families who live next to the factory walls, the situation is bad,” a German development aid worker, who wants to remain anonymous, says. “But only for those.” Several meters away, the soil is moist again. The man has been working in India for several years, in many different communities, also in Mehdiganj. He sits at a road diner in the next larger city, Varanasi, the holiest place of Hinduism. “The extensive water grabbing," he says. “That’s a myth.”

He says that this story is being told because it pays off. The campaigns are generating funds. “If you fight giants like Coca-Cola, people like to make a donation, some out of conviction, some to have a clean conscience.” As a matter of fact, 85 percent of the water consumption in India is accounted for by agriculture, as documented by figures of the Environmental Ministry. The companies in the country account for less than 10%, all companies together. Individual beverage producers use approximately 0.02 percent; many companies from the textile industry utilize, by contrast, significantly more. “But what sounds better," the development aid worker asks: “If you fight an Indian trouser sewer or Coca-Cola.

If you want to relieve the water crisis, you have to start in a different area: in the field of power.

Power has extremely low prices for farmers. The government subsidizes power in order to support agriculture. However, energy is not flowing constantly but in unpredictable waves, sometimes for a few hours in the morning, sometimes in the middle of the night. Who wants to get up to activate the pumps? The farmers prefer to let them run without interruption. This only costs a few Rupees and guarantees that they are benefiting from the power surge. During this time window the pumps then work in an unrestrained manner, extract more liquid from the soil than the farmers can use. The groundwater level decreases until it becomes inaccessible for the pumps.

Moreover, most families are cultivating rice, of all crops. Hardly any cereal needs as much water. 2,500 liters per kilogram, as calculated by the Water Footprint organization. India exported last year 4 million tons, more than any other country. By way of comparison: every liter of Coke leaving the factory in Mehdiganj costs 35 liters of water including everything: the liquid in the bottles, the cleaning of the factories, the thirst of the workers. A comparatively low number. But many activists don’t care.

Their adversary in the fight for attention receives its visitors on the 23rd floor of a tower in the city of Gurgaon, 30 kilometers southwest of New Delhi. Kamlesh Kumar Sharma sits in a cool, neat office, far away from the heat and the chaos in the streets.

Sharma is Coca-Cola’s PR director in India. A youthful manager with a bright smile.

“We have a positive water balance”, he says. The company directs more water into the soil than it withdraws from it. According to Sharma, the company operates a whole series of projects. Pumps, installed in the villages, which are located next to the factories. Basins in which rain water is collected and trickles back into the ground. Dams which collect fresh water.

“We give India one-and-a-half times more water back than we extract,” says Sharma. "Exactly 146 percent.”

This is hardly helpful for Anju Devi: the PR activities of a group, the campaigns of activists... that’s not her world. Devi hopes that the next monsoon will come. The wind, which will ensure what India will still be dependent on during the 21st Century: rain.

Every person needs it. But it means something different for everybody: water. It is a scarce resource, an expensive good, a big business, a reason to fight and for many animals and plants, a home. Water has many facets and it is worthwhile to take a closer look at them.

We do so with the multimedia special “About water” at welt.de/wasser.

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