An Open Response to "an Open Letter to Shashi Tharoor"

Note from Shashi Tharoor: "Some of my regular readers are aware that of late, my writing has been taking a back seat to an increasing involvement in public affairs in India. This has involved me in some occasionally-interesting polemics, including the recent exchange of "open letters" that appears below. Since the correspondence raises larger issues about the role of multinational corporations and their social responsibility in a country like India, I thought it might be of interest." An Open Response to "an Open Letter to Shashi Tharoor" 26 February 2009 Dear Mr Swaminathan and Mr Ajayan,

Thank you for sending me your letter on February 24. I note, however, that for several days prior to your sending it to me, you had already released it to the media and in various Internet forums. It would appear that your communication was therefore not designed to elicit a genuine answer from me, but rather to score political points. Nonetheless I am doing you the courtesy of taking your public charges in good faith and responding to them point by point.

You express your "shock and dismay" at my membership of the Advisory Board of Yatn, the Coca-Cola India Foundation and go on to "condemn [my] insensitivity and unconcern to align with the criminal Coca-Cola against the people of Plachimada." First of all, I should point out the difference between the Foundation and the company. I serve, alongside several renowned social activists and human rights leaders, under the chairmanship of the former Supreme Court Chief Justice and former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Justice J.S. Verma, on the advisory board of a purely philanthropic organization. The Foundation is financed by the Coca-Cola Company as part of its corporate social responsibility, which is a practice that I have encouraged around the world since my United Nations days, when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched the "Global Compact" to encourage corporations around the world to adhere to certain globally-accepted principles and practices. Far from "aligning against the people", the purpose of encouraging such a Foundation is precisely to ensure that the company looks beyond its commercial bottom-line and serves the people of our country.

I have been, and remain, strongly committed to the belief that in our liberalizing economy, private sector companies should not only maintain the highest employment and labour standards, but also take pro-active steps to benefit the communities in which they operate. My membership of the Foundation's Advisory Board aims at promoting such benefits through a number of concrete projects, particularly in the area of safe drinking water, which is in such short supply in our country.

You level a number of charges against the Coca-Cola company's operations at the Plachimada plant, notably relating to ground-water exploitation and pollution of groundwater through toxic waste from its plant. As I stressed, I do not represent the company in any way, but I am fully aware that such charges led to the plant ceasing operations in 2004. Needless to say, far from being "unconcerned", I inquired into the matter to satisfy myself that these allegations had been thoroughly examined by the competent authorities. I note that a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court ruled, in a judgment dated 7 August 2005, that the company was not guilty of unfairly exploiting the groundwater, and that indeed the groundwater in Plachimada continued to dry up after the company ceased operations, leading the Court to conclude that other factors, including a shortage of rainfall, were to blame. The Court based its conclusions on a number of detailed independent expert studies, including one that the Court itself had commissioned from the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), Kozhikode, which is a part of the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and the Environment. I do not understand on what basis you are questioning the Kerala High Court's conclusions.

On the question of ground-water toxins and toxic sludge, I have seen reports from reputed governmental bodies, including the Kerala State Pollution Control Board and the Central Ground Water Board, New Delhi, refuting your charges. Once again, I am unable to understand the scientific basis for your continued charges against the company, and can only conclude that they are politically-motivated.

Finally, with regard to the discontinuation of the supply of drinking water by the company, I note that this supply in fact continued till December 2007, almost four years after the plant's forced closure, but that it was not practical for the company to continue beyond that date in view of its lack of operations in the area. The Court order required it to supply drinking water to the community only so long as it continued operations there. Nonetheless, the Yatn Foundation intends to give thought to developing a philanthropic project in Kerala in the area of drinking water, an issue to which I have personally attached the highest importance in my interventions on the Advisory Board.

Let me add, in conclusion, and with a heavy heart, how much I deplore both the content and tone of your letter. Since leaving the United Nations, I have been doing my best to promote investment into Kerala, which alone can generate the employment that is so desperately needed by our people. As a Keralite, I am ashamed that our people have to find work elsewhere in India and in the Gulf because the over-politicized atmosphere in Kerala discourages companies from investing in our state. The only result of your agitation over the Plachimada plant has been to close down an investment worth over Rs 80 crores in our state, which provided direct employment to 400 people and indirect employment to more than 5000 persons, including transporters, construction workers, and distributors. While all these people are now out of a job, no one has benefited from your continued protests. Instead, the image of Kerala as a place in which it is unwise for businesses to invest has been reinforced.

It is tragic that actions such as yours ensure that politics overrides the genuine needs of the people. If you are truly concerned about the well-being of the people of Plachimada, I would urge you instead to attempt to do what you can to persuade businesses like Coca-Cola to invest in Kerala and provide employment and drinking water to the people of our state. I would be pleased to join you in such an endeavour.

And instead of being dismayed by my service in such a Foundation, I urge you to applaud whatever help the other Advisory Board members and I can provide to steer the Foundation's resources towards helping people on issues like safe drinking water, energy resources, waste management, and the development of backward areas.

Yours sincerely, Shashi Tharoor