Profit before Pakistanis: A case of mangoes, potatoes and bottled water

Last year I visited Madina Munawwarah and stayed at a five star hotel which had a bed and breakfast deal. They had a large breakfast buffet in the morning comprising of Arabic, Oriental, etc breakfast options. To cut the long story short, they also a had a fruit table where all kinds of sliced fruit were available in ready to eat format. I was amazed at their watermelon pieces. They must have cut around 50 to 100 watermelons to fill the various trays on multiple tables. The surprising part of it that there was not a single bad water melon. All the watermelons were red-dark pink and sweet. Whenever we go to a shop to buy water melons we have to check for sweet and red ones and occasionally we end up with unripe or non-sweet water melons. But in that hotel all the water melons pieces were ripe and sweet and red. Why can’t we get such delicious water melons every time?

This reminded me of an earlier event. Around 2004, a colleague of mine who used to work in the same bank branch as I did in Karachi was traveling to his home town Mirpurkhas. It was mango season and as Mirpurkhas lied in mango country, I asked him to buy me some delicious mangoes from Mirpurkhas. When he came back, he was empty handed. I asked him why didn’t he bring mangoes for me. He said the quality available there was not good. I told him that it is not possible that the good quality mangoes didn’t grow in Sind. He said that I misunderstood him. It is not that good mangoes don’t grow in Mirpurkhas rather good mangoes are not sold in Mirpurkhas. They are packed and sent to Karachi for consumption and export as they get higher prices. It is a tragedy that the people where the fruit is grown are not able to buy it because people in far away places like Karachi or abroad are willing to pay a much higher price for it.

Around 2008, a friend in Karachi was advising on merger between makers of Lays chips and Kolson snacks. He was sitting in one of the meetings between the two companies and discussion of potatoes came up wherein the Kolson guy told the Lays people that you don’t leave any potatoes for us. At this, the Lays people just laughed. When the meeting was over, my friend asked the Kolson team what is this about potatoes.

Kolson team told him that Lays has reached an arrangement with major potato farmers in Pakistan that they will get the first pick of all potatoes grown in the country. Once the company fulfills its quota or has rejected the produce, then the farmers can sell the potatoes in the market. So in a sense, the Pakistani nation buys and consumes that potatoes that have been rejected by Lays. Our best potatoes are used to make chips.

Nestle has also been involved in such practices. From the petition page Nestlé: Stop draining Pakistan dry!

Nestlé’s aggressive water grab is already descending like a plague on parts of Pakistan. In the small village of Bhati Dilwan, villagers have watched their water table sink hundreds of feet since Nestlé moved in. Children are getting sick from the foul-smelling sludge they’re forced to choke down.

I remember there was time in late 1980s that we used to drink water right out of kitchen sink. Now the media campaign with respect to bad quality of water in our water pipelines and disease associated with it get so much coverage that every one is forced to buy expensive water (something which is supposed to be cheap and readily accessible). From the study funded by Swiss Coalition of Development Organisations, Swissaid, Catholic Lenten Fund, Bread for all, Helvetas Caritas, Interchurch Aid “Drinking Water Crisis in Pakistan and the Issue of Bottled Water: The Case of Nestlé’s ‘Pure Life’” (ironically Nestle is a swiss company):

The aggressive market strategies of Nestlé went astray when “awareness seminars” about bad water conditions turned out to be counterproductive. Nestlé asked its Lahore ad agency, Interflow Communications Ltd., to organize public information events about water hygiene issues. Participating officials of health and water agencies announced that tests had determined that urban water was unsafe for drinking and even existing bottled water was unhealthy. Nestlé discontinued the seminars immediately after it was reproached for unethical marketing practices. For instance, a representative from the Lahore Water Supply Company alleged that Nestlé was “misleading the people to make money”. Regardless of the discussion and temporary fall back from Nestlé, it became clear that bad news was also good news, and Nestlé gained public attention as a safe option for bottled water. In the end, Nestlé successfully stepped into the market andfilled a need, but turned water from a danger into a luxury.

Furthermore

After five years of operation, Nestlé faced its first opposition when it announced that it would build a second production plant in Karachi. On October 25, 2003, the Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology sent a writ petition to the Sindh High Court (Karachi), saying that the 20 acres leased out to Nestlé were carved out of the 300 acres of land allotted to it previously. The lawsuit has been joined by Sindh Institute of Urology & Transplantation, Aga Khan Hospital and Medical College Foundation, Sindh Madressahtul Islam, Newport Institute of Communication & Economics, Sir Syed University of Engineering & Technology, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre, and Ziauddin Medical University — all land allottees in the said area. The property is located in an area spread over 15,500 acres, given to 30 different parties, believed to be designated for various educational and health purposes, and declared “Education City Karachi”. Nestlé bought the property for a price of PKR 500’000, double the price paid by the other parties, with the intention to invest USD 10 million and extract 306 million litres of water annually, for the sale of 228 million litres of bottled water. Ironically, the plant was not planned to meet the needs of the people of Karachi or the South of Pakistan, but for US forces at Afghanistan’s Kandahar Air Base.

The plaintiffs argued that Nestlé’s industrial ambitions defeated the very purpose of the area. Nestlé argued that the property was allotted after approval of the provincial cabinet and the department of industries. Furthermore, Nestlé claimed at the end of the dispute that the area was never declared for a single, non-industrial purpose, and the company presented various public officials to promote this position. The plaintiffs, however, could prove that the area was dedicated to education and health services since 1999, and the Sindh High Court (Karachi) held that water extraction by the proposed bottling plant would “diminish water deposits in the aquifers rapidly and shall adversely affect the plaintiffs’ right to use the underground water according to their genuine needs ”. The case is still open, regarding the plant and the investment, since Nestlé continues to legally challenge the decision of the Sindh High Court (Karachi). Nevertheless, one has to keep Nestlé’s self – commitment in mind, namely that it “consult[s] with local communities on water issues”, which was obviously not the case in Karachi.

The losers in this game are the poor

Insufficient water quality mostly affects the poor, who have little power to change policies and priorities and who cannot afford alternatives, such as bottled water, filtering and boiling. The Government of Pakistan officially admitted that “richer households are substantially more likely to have water piped to a tap in the household”. Furthermore, the Government of Pakistan acknowledged that the engagement of corporations, which extract groundwater and sell it as bottled water, might be one of the factors working against water quality improvement because it has reduced the political pressure for improvement by this part of society whose voices are valued and heard.

In conclusion,

Even Nestlé confessed before it started to produce ‘Pure Life’ that “the fact that everybody can’t afford ‘Pure Life’ is unfortunate, but does that mean we shouldn’t sell it at all?”. From this perspective, it is reasonable that Nestlé focused its marketing on urban centres, railway and bus stations and highway stops. To conclude, one has to say that Nestlé ‘Pure Life’ in Pakistan is not an affordable alternative for the great portion of the population without access to safe drinking water. Rather the introduction of bottled water in Pakistan is an attempt to initiate the bottled water culture, where water is a status symbol and a way of life for the rich.

So whether you grow potatoes or mangoes or sitting on water reserves, if you are poor, you will not be able to enjoy these fruits of nature.

Coming back to watermelon story, it was like the five star hotels have made a deal with watermelon growers to sell them the best watermelons and once the hotels have bought as per their requirement, then the farmers can sell the remaining watermelons in the market.

  • Further reading:

If you are interested in reading more about scandalous bottled water campaigns, please read this Mother Jones expose about Fiji water: Spin the Bottle. (It is worth reading in the full)

Obama sips it. Paris Hilton loves it. Mary J. Blige won’t sing without it. How did a plastic water bottle, imported from a military dictatorship thousands of miles away, become the epitome of cool?

Nowhere in Fiji Water’s glossy marketing materials will you find reference to the typhoid outbreaks that plague Fijians because of the island’s faulty water supplies; the corporate entities that Fiji Water has—despite the owners’ talk of financial transparency—set up in tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg; or the fact that its signature bottle is made from Chinese plastic in a diesel-fueled plant and hauled thousands of miles to its ecoconscious consumers. And, of course, you won’t find mention of the military junta for which Fiji Water is a major source of global recognition and legitimacy.

During the 2000 coup, a small posse of villagers wielding spearguns and dynamite seized on the chaos to take over the bottling plant and threaten to burn it down. “The land is sacred and central to our continued existence and identity,” a village spokesman told the Fiji Times, adding that “no Fijian should live off the breadcrumbs of past colonial injustices.” Two years later, the company created the Vatukaloko Trust Fund, a charity targeting several villages surrounding its plant. It won’t say how much it has given to the trust, but court proceedings indicate that it has agreed to donate .15 percent of its Fijian operation’s net revenues; a company official testified that the total was about $100,000 in 2007. (For perspective, the trade journal Brandweek put Fiji Water’s marketing budget at $10 million in 2008; it recently dropped $250,000 to become a founding partner of the new Salt Lake City soccer stadium.)

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