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: “
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
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.
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:
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
“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
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
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
A total of 1,500 people. Can they all be wrong? Probably not. At least some of them are really suffering under
“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
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.
“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.