For once, Mark Thomas is serious. Traversing continents—from Istanbul to Mexico; from Bogota to Plachimada—the British comedian annoys all the right people and asks all the wrong questions in his new book Belching Out The Devil.
Thomas takes the fizz out of the world’s most recognized beverage company, Coca-Cola, with the thoroughness of an investigative journalist. Shocking facts about child rights abuse, labour intimidation and unscrupulous groundwater extraction unravel about a company that reportedly spends around $2 billion (around Rs10,000 crore) on advertising.
Local flavour: A Hindustan Coca-Cola plant in Nemam, Tamil Nadu. Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP
Thomas was stunned when a woman from Coca-Cola’s human resources department asked, “Why are you picking on us?” The question implied that not only was the company innocent, but that questioning it was intimidatory. But Thomas went to meet her well-researched.
Thomas’ brand of issue-driven comedy has earned him the UN Global Human Rights Defender Award and the prestigious Emerald Eagle Award for Unbiased Reporting. Such awards could be incriminating, as Thomas learnt while seeking a meeting with Coca-Cola’s officials in Kala Dera, near Jaipur. The permission was refused because the company found him “biased” in his writings.
The murder of a trade unionist working for Coca-Cola’s bottler in Colombia in the early 1990s may have sparked a worldwide campaign against the beverage giant, but the company had conveniently distanced itself. On the murder trail, Thomas found seven union members had been killed in cold blood by Colombian paramilitary groups. It may have been legally questionable, but the company escaped by transferring the responsibility squarely on independent bottlers in Colombia.
The murders affected beverage sales by about $2.2 billion. However, aggressive marketing kept the company rolling. Thomas argues that the global brand thrives on the collective stupidity and failed memories of its consumers. A day before his death, Martin Luther King Jr spoke against Coca-Cola for its racial hiring policy, and called upon African-Americans, “We are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbours not to buy Coca-Cola…” Thomas says that by flouting existing regulations and laws, Coca Cola has made aggressive inroads into developing countries. The lifting of a ban on an artificial sweetener called cyclamate, which was banned in the US and Mexico, encouraged the company to spend one-fifth of its annual advertising budget in Mexico alone.
The story of Coke’s India story is no less intriguing. It had left the country in 1977 because the then government had asked the company to “Indianize” by selling 60% of its stake. Coke’s re-entry after 16 years was on the condition that its wholly owned subsidiary, Hindustan Coca-Cola Holdings, would sell 49% of its shares to resident Indians.
Belching Out The Devil: Ebury Press, 384 pages, £11.99 (around Rs880).
Thomas’ subjects include Raquel Chavez, the Mexican woman who took Coke to court for monopolistic trade that forced the company to shell out $13 million in fine. Thomas goes from being witness to child labour on the cane fields in El Salvador to dried village wells along dusty roads in Rajasthan.
Despite being scrutinized for drying aquifers in Plachimada, Kerala, and Kala Dera, Rajasthan, Coke legitimises its water-guzzling by investing in rainwater harvesting thereby making people believe that it is replenishing as much as it is extracting. In reality, the pace of extracting groundwater can never match that of replenishment simply because it doesn’t rain every day.
Sudhirendar Sharma is a Delhi-based development analyst.
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