Corporate Accountability

By Akhilesh Shivaramakrishnan

The rural villages that house my ancestral homes in the outskirts of Palakkad, India, are often forgotten next to the large cities they border. Thus, I was surprised when I first learned about the significant role that Coca Cola, a major multinational corporation, played in Plachimada village, just a few minutes outside my grandparent's familial homes. In its pursuit for profit, Coca Cola had been drawing the community's groundwater and processing it into soda.

In the process, it became clear that this rural community was being taken advantage of. While their richer, more urban neighbors were enjoying the benefits of bottled soda, villagers' wells were soon empty. Women were walking miles to obtain safe water, and significant health concerns were developing. At the same time, Coca Cola continued to claim that they did nothing wrong, while using the village's groundwater to make a profit.

Addressing a situation like this is complex: what are the steps that must be taken to hold Coca Cola responsible most effectively for its actions? Or, for that matter, any corporation that exploits the resources of these small, rural communities for its own gain?

To me, the primary step is clear: bring public attention to the issue. And the best way to do this is through movements that start at the community level— grassroots movements — with those that are being impacted by the problems the corporation is causing.

Take, for example, the work of the citizens of Plachimada. From the 55-year-old woman, Mylama, who organizes the consistent protests outside Coca Cola's factory in the village to Archyami Krishnan, president of the panchayat council, who continues to speak out against Coca Cola's claims that it is taking action to resolve the issues at hand. Even activist Oamjie John's work in determining the significant reduction in water quality for the area. Although their collective efforts were initially dismissed by the corporation as "agitation of Marxists," growing international media attention because of the community's efforts allowed for a lawsuit and a current stop on the drawing of groundwater. Here, the first step was public attention, spearheaded by the impacted community, which paved the path for further accountability.

The efforts of community-based activists can be seen in rural communities throughout the world. Some 8500 miles away, in Flint, Michigan, a public health crisis revolving around the water systems in the city stretched from 2014 to 2019. Here, we see the efforts of the community taking the first steps in keeping a municipal corporation—or a local government—accountable. The residents of Flint had noticed stark, visual changes in their water supply as well as some minor (yet immediate) health effects of these changes, such as rashes and hair loss. While the residents continued to protest the water quality, companies such as GM were allowed to stop taking water from Flint as it had caused corrosion to machinery; yet resident concerns continued to be dismissed by the city and even some in academia. Thus, it became the responsibility of the faith community and local community organizations to essentially create their own studies (called community based participatory research methods) which proved that there was a problem with lead in the water and ended up forming the groundwork for further study by health experts.

In Flint—a smaller city (with a majority non-white population) that has experienced population decline since the 1970s—the work of community activists was not only helpful, but necessary in curbing the public health crisis that had formed. The actions of the people experiencing the crisis allowed for the perpetrator of the crisis, a municipal corporation, to start to be held accountable. It is very likely that had the residents not taken such strong action, the concerns over the water would never have been addressed.

The power of community-based activism lies in the fact that it creates the first step towards accountability for corporations that are taking advantage of these communities, and thus, can play a crucial role in transforming the model of "corporate social responsibility" (CSR) into one of corporate social accountability. Take a look at Coca Cola: their CSR statements include integrating the principles of environmental stewardship into their business decisions. But look at Plachimada: not much stewardship exercised there! But—if the small community had not made their voices heard, it is likely that Coca Cola's negligent practices in Plachimada would continue, all while publicly stating that it was committed to environmental and social causes. When combined with legislation, regulation, and a consistent public check on a corporation's power—the power of citizens, from Plachimada to Flint, can begin the process of corporate accountability.