Farmers in this Rajasthan block blame the drastic fall in groundwater table on the bottling plant, saying it draws out far more water than can be naturally recharged

Till the late 1990s, Bansi Aheer, like all other farmers around Kaladera, used to irrigate his seven-bigha farm, drawing water from a well. “Water was easily available at about 40 feet. But it dropped annually by one or two feet and later by eight or ten feet,” he says.

Today, covered with thorny shrubs, the well appears no more than a relic. Since 2000, the groundwater levels at Kaladera have dropped so sharply that even wells deepened to 80 feet couldn’t satisfy irrigation needs.

In 2002, another farmer, Rameshwar Kudi, had to sink a borewell on his farm to grow water-intensive crops. “I was among the first people to do that. By 2003, most farmers, including the small ones, had borewells dug on their farms,” he says. The initial borewells at Kaladera were 120-140 feet deep, but the new ones are “easily 200 feet.”

Farmers of the region blame the drastic fall on the bottling plant set up by Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverage, which allegedly draws far more water than can be naturally recharged.

Mr. Kudi is an active member of the Kaladera Jan Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation of farmers, that has been demanding closure of the plant, set up in the Rajasthan State Industrial Development and Investment Corporation Ltd. (RIICO) industrial area in 1999 and started operations the next year.

According to data compiled by the Rajasthan Groundwater department, in the 16 years from 1984 the groundwater levels at Kaladera dropped from 13 to 42 feet, at an average annual rate of 1.81 feet. But from 2000 to 2011, the drop was sharp from 42 to 131 feet at the rate of 8.9 feet a year.

While the beginning of Coca-Cola’s operations coincided with the start of Kaladera groundwater getting depleted rapidly, there are several reasons, including increased extraction by farmers through motorised pumps and the setting up of other water-intensive industries such as paper mills.

For the farmers, however, the multinational beverage giant is the main culprit.

Two panchayat samitis — Amber and Govindgarh — have passed unanimous resolutions demanding closure of the plant. Groundwater officials, however, do not see Coca-Cola as the main culprit. “Groundwater levels are dropping rapidly almost everywhere in Rajasthan, especially around Jaipur. But the primary reason for this is agricultural use, not industrial,” says P.K. Parchure, Regional Director, Central Groundwater Board, Jaipur office.

Heera Lal Regar, owner of five bighas of farmland, is amused by comparisons between farmers and Coca-Cola. “We produce food that feeds the country. What does Coca-Cola produce? Is it as important as food?” he asks.

Coca-Cola, however, claims it recharges “at least nine times more groundwater than it uses, thanks to the rainwater harvesting potential created by the bottling plant.”

“Nine times are a lot... but even if they manage to recharge double the amount they use, they are doing a good job,” says Dr. Parchure. “It is difficult to confirm the quantum of recharge as the only way to arrive at a tentative figure is based on the number of recharge structures they build and the recharge potential of these structures.”

Coca-Cola’s plant has two bottling lines — a Returnable Glass Bottle (RGB) line and a PET line — both of which manufacture sparkling soft drinks. The two lines operate for not more than 150 days in a year, according to the company.

“Our plant at Kaladera uses less than one per cent of the area’s available water, which is negligible in comparison to agriculture according to the TERI report of 2008,” a statement by Coca-Cola claims.

The company says it has improved its water usage ratio — defined as litres of water used to make one litre of finished beverage — over the last six years.

“While water withdrawal has remained almost stable — 89,502 kilolitre/annum in 2007 to 89,467 in 2013 — the water usage ratio has improved significantly —from 3 in 2007 to 1.7 in 2013,” it claims.

According to Coca Cola, the decline in the groundwater level is a regional problem and attributing it to the plant will be unfair.