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Villagers in Varanasi challenging beverage giant Coca Cola
Villagers in Varanasi have challenged the high-handedness of the beverage giant, Coca Cola for their illegal expansion of the bottling plant in Mehdiganj, Varanasi. The company brought the land initially in 1999 from Kejriwal Beverages Private Limited. But, it was primarily in 2012 that the company landed themselves in trouble when they wanted to expand their bottling plant leading to a land grab situation among other things.

''During their expansion plan, the company (Coca Cola) brought the land from farmers, but they gradually began to capture the surrounding areas as well,'' said Nandlal Master of Lok Samiti, the local community group that has been at the forefront of the campaign. The surrounding areas include public roads, canals and other areas. The decreasing water table is what angered the farmers along with the illegal land grab situation and to make matters worse Coca Cola even asked for an increase in the groundwater usage from 50,000 cubic metre to 250,000 cubic metres.

With complaints from local villagers to the District Magistrate, investigations were carried out . It was found out that the illegal occupation of the land by Coca-Cola, approximately 2,500 square meters within the premises of its bottling plant was community owned land and meant for use by the community only.

The company have landed in thick soup, hence they are ready to buy the entire land as per the market value, but the villagers does not want anything else apart from evicting Coca Cola from the place. They are not going to be lured with money. ''It is not only about the land. It is a criminal act by the company. We do not want the presence of the company in our area,'' said Nandlal.

A British company, Mott MacDonald, claims to have finished construction of the expanded facility and some of the new construction is evident on the illegally occupied land. The company cannot commence with its operation in the illegal land.The company is in trouble, as they have not received any NOC from Central Ground Water Authority, Delhi.

If one goes by the Supreme Court's ruling, the illegal plant has to be demolished. On January 2011 it stated that ''State Governments in the country should prepare schemes for eviction of illegal/unauthorized occupants of Gram Sabha/Gram Panchayat/Poramboke/Shamlat land and these must be restored to the Gram Sabha/Gram Panchayat for the common use of villagers of the village.” The land where the expansion plan has been carried out belongs to gram sabha.

Initially, when the bottling plant was started in 1999, the villagers were extremely happy as they were promised a number of positives. ''We were happy, when they first started the plant, as they talked about providing employment to the villagers along with other things. But soon, we realised that they were not fulfilling their promises. They had promised 75 per cent local employment, but it was not the case. There were no permanent locals employed as well, '' said Nandlal. As a result of which unions protested against this and to their surprise, they were charged for fake criminal cases and were hence jailed.

What looks to be a joke now is the fact that Coca Cola had committed to zero tolerance for land grabs in its supply chain. What has happened to their zero tolerance? “Coca-Cola’s land grab in India, as confirmed by government authorities, makes a mockery of their so called zero tolerance commitment towards land grabs.  If Coca-Cola is serious, they should immediately return the community-owned land to the village council, as demanded by the government authorities,” said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, an international campaigning group.

The villagers remain positive that victory shall be theirs. Nandlal said, ''We know justice shall be delivered to us, though it may take time.''

No representatives of Coca Cola were available for comment.

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