Coke in Kerala

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About the author

Professor Terry Halbert, Professor of Legal Studies at the Fox School of Business and Management at Temple University, USA, on Coke in Kerala case series.

Why Coke in Kerala?

In March 2004, Coca-Cola suspended production at its US$12 million Indian bottling plant in Kerala. Local citizens noticed their water becoming polluted and scarce. Local and global activists joined protests. As the controversy developed, persistently in the media, the local authority refused to renew Coca-Cola's license. Even state government, supportive of foreign investment, became aligned against Coke. The plant remains closed.

My initial attraction to this subject was a gut response. I noticed news about Kerala after a trip there in 2002. The David vs Goliath aspect of a small group of tribal people in a village sitting outside a Coca-Cola bottling plant, 24 hours a day, in silent protest over alleged contamination of their water, caught my attention. I had walked through villages like the one I was reading about. I felt connected to the unfolding story.

What were the teaching objectives?

Many traditional cases open with a mid-level manager staring out the window, pondering what to do about the thorny situation he faces. The typical case will then go on to describe that problem from the corporate point of view, the history or background, recent developments, the various stakeholders and their opinions. I teach and write about global environmental ethics and I saw the need for a holistic case series that would explore a current global business ethics problem from the perspective of all the primary stakeholders. Coke in Kerala gives several versions of the same story; each stakeholder highlights whatever facts are perceived as relevant, and puts a distinct spin on them. In this way, the story emerges with multiple strands, and a complicated texture.

I strongly believe that this degree of richness and complexity is central to the process of teaching business ethics. In order to recognize the ethical dimensions of a scenario and to reflect on the right thing to do, students must accurately perceive the attitudes, aspirations, and needs of other people, especially key when those others are culturally or politically unfamiliar. I wanted the case to contain perspectives articulated by the stakeholders themselves, rather than by an omniscient (biased?) narrator.

I wanted it to be as vivid as possible, so that students would become engrossed and enthusiastic to participate. My teaching note assists this process. I wanted to illuminate the way some crucial matters are not fully settled or clear. We'll never know whether the Coke plant caused the water depletion/pollution, or if there were pesticides. There are facts students can research, but much else is properly left unclear. Factual uncertainty often brings the ethical issues in business decisions into play.

Challenges

By the time we investigated, the protest was already in the news. Things were tense. Academics and journalists could only make contact with the protest leaders. I was extremely fortunate to be collaborating with Temple University business ethics graduate student Sridevi Shivavarajan, who is from Kerala, and speaks Malayalam. She combined visits home with visits to the site. Camcorder in hand, she gained the trust of many different stakeholders and interviewed them; not just the tribal people on the protest platform, but the local governing council members and Coke employees. She interviewed a lawyer who argued the case to the high court, an anthropologist who had studied the use of bore wells in the area, the media mogul whose vernacular paper influenced opinion across the state for the protestors, and some internationally-known anti-water privatization activists who visited the site. By her third visit, management at the plant welcomed Sridevi, taking pains to give her their side of things and show her around. She used the research for her PhD thesis. I learned how to edit digital video, worried that the result would be unprofessional, but students say the hand-held effect conveys the situation in a raw, realistic way. (If you'd like a copy of the DVD contact me at thalbert@temple.edu).

Why a case series and DVD?

I wanted a multimedia case. I find students respond best to a learning environment that combines text with visual and aural inputs. The voices of the stakeholders make the story and the exotic setting vivid and more 'teachable'. The case series is an excellent teaching tool because it gives students practice assessing a complex situation across time and shifting circumstances. At the end of (A), a judge has ruled against the company. (B) changes the complexion of the problem. The shift from (A) to (B) provides an opportunity to teach about law and ethics. What is legal at the end of (B) may not be the right thing for any of the stakeholders.

Any advice?

Anyone writing a case series should have a genuine passion for producing a teaching tool; it takes quite a while to do the background reading and write the various parts of the case, including appendices and teaching note. At Temple, as elsewhere, faculty are still much better rewarded for traditional research and publication than for writing cases. I also suggest considering the multi-view model developed here for ethics cases. The Coke in Kerala controversy continues to develop. New students could learn about, or even attend, the next shareholder's meeting, contact the company, or simply track the latest in the ongoing saga.

Case details

Click on the case titles to view further details and, where available, an inspection copy.

Coke in Kerala: Case A
Ref 705-033-1
Also available:
Coke in Kerala: Case B

Ref 705-034-1
Teaching note
Ref 705-033-8

About the author

Professor Terry Halbert is Professor of Legal Studies at the Fox School of Business, Temple University, USA.
e thalbert@temple.edu

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