Water is one of the world’s most precious resources. It sustains not just us human beings, but all life on earth. The world contains sufficient freshwater to meet the personal and domestic needs of all people on the planet, and water used for these purposes accounts for just 10% of all water used in human activities. Yet, today a large number of the world’s people do not have access to a basic supply of water from a clean source, many more have to walk long distances or put themselves in physical danger to be able to collect clean water for their families. It is obvious that lack of access to water stems from inequity and unequal power relationships, more than the actual lack of fresh water on the planet. Recently, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring the Right to Water as a fundamental human right, and India is one of its signatories. The resolution, “affirms that the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living and inextricably related to the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as the right to life and human dignity.” In spite of this, all over the world, water is increasingly being commodified and exploited for profit. More and more of the world’s water is falling into private hands, to be treated as a product with a consumer-base. At the fore-front of this assault on the right to water are the world’s big soft drink companies, primarily Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, both of which specialise in extracting water in huge volumes from public water bodies, adding large quantities of sugar and caffeine to it and packaging it into small bottles to be sold to those who can pay for it. These companies are notorious not just for their environmentally destructive practices, but also for exploitative labour policies and the adverse health effects of their products.
Asha Parivar has been fighting a long battle against a Coca Cola bottling plant situated in Varanasi district, which has been responsible for creating an acute water shortage in the area. Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited (HCCBPL), the largest bottling partner of the Coca Cola company in India, has been operating the carbonated soft drink plant near Mehdiganj village, Rajatalab, Block Arajiline, District Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh since the year 1999. Also since then, Arajiline has been declared as a critically exploited block in terms of the groundwater usage levels by the Central Ground Water Authority. Many hand pumps, wells, bore wells and ponds in the area have dried up. The government has banned farmers from installing any new bore wells for the purpose of irrigation or even hand pumps for drinking water. Until recently, to meet its yearly requirement of 50,000 cubic metres of water, the plant had been using two borewells of depths 103 and 137 meters respectively, drawing upto 12,290 cubic metres/ month of water during peak season in June. Now, the plant is set to expand its capacity to 2,50,000 cubic metres/ year and has submitted an application to the Central Groundwater Authority (CGWA) seeking permission for this. This move has met with much resistance from local communities, who are fighting hard to ensure that Coke is not allowed to continue exploiting their groundwater. Recently, Gram Pradhans of 15 Gram Sabhas within a radius of five kms. from the plant – Mehdiganj, Bhikharipur, Dholapur, Bhadrashi, Deora, Nagepur, Benipur, Kallipur, Chandapur, Kachariya, Monglavir, Babhaniyav, Rakhona, Kundariya, Ganeshpur and the Block Pramukh Mahendra Singh Patel have written to the Government not to allow Coca Cola to increase its present capacity five times. Asha Parivar supports the people’s movement to resist the violation of their right to water, and is working to raise awareness about the issue among government officials and the general public.