Mark Thomas - finds Indians who won't drink Coke

In India, pressures on the water supply created by a Coca-Cola plant have caused wells to dry up. Is

There's no justice in this world. If there were, all advertisers would be forced to walk in public wearing sandwich boards with the text of their ads written in large letters and the words "I am responsible for this" scrawled on their foreheads in marker pen.

Advertisers are the pushers of the pointless crap that invades our lives, and the only creative thing they have ever done is steal the word "creative" to describe what they do.

In the recent Coca-Cola advertisement, a thirtysomething woman walks through a crowd of people on the street, singing some life-affirming Whitney-Houston-meets-Tracy-Chapman dirge. She hands out bottles of Coke, which she produces ready-opened from her handbag, to complete strangers. And this is supposed to make us buy a sugary drink.

Try doing that in real life. Try singing loudly in south London, walking up to a complete stranger and offering them an opened bottle of drink from your handbag.

And when you've tried it, let me know what hospital you are in. I'll bring the grapes.

In India, Coke's advertisements are not so much inept as cruelly ironic. In one, a group of women walk in the heat to a village well. They look disappointed when a stranger starts to pull up a bucket of water.

Suddenly, the stranger reveals himself to be a well-known Bollywood star and the bucket turns out to be full of bottles of Coca-Cola. Hurrah! Let the party begin. The irony here is that you can buy a bottle of Coke in an Indian village that has no clean water.

Nowhere is this more true than in Plachimada in the state of Kerala, which I visited on a trip with ActionAid. Here, a Coca-Cola Company subsidiary, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, opened a bottling plant in 2000 and promptly dug six bore wells. You might have thought that some bright spark would have questioned the wisdom of opening a highly water-intensive bottling plant in a drought-prone area, but both the national and state governments eagerly bought into the notion that a Coke factory equals "development".

These little glitches crop up every now and then in "development". Back in the Marcos era in the Philippines, the US Export-Import Bank (the US government export credit agency) backed the building of a nuclear power station in a region liable to earthquakes and which is near an active volcano. Thankfully, it has never been given a licence to operate.

With dull predictability, Plachimada's wells dried up and what little water there was became undrinkable. A study by the district medical officer concluded: "This water is unfit for drinking."

Faced with no local water supply, people have had to walk long distances to the nearest clean wells. In an excellent BBC Radio 4 report on the Coca-Cola plant, one local woman described how she was forced to travel seven kilometres to get water.

The Coca-Cola Company is now reduced to bussing in tankers of clean water to the village. Strangely enough, some people have not shown much gratitude to the company for its largesse.

Thousands have been affected. People I spoke to said they used to earn about £1 a day as harvesters, and they used to get about 20 days' work a month. Now they are lucky if they get five days' work a month, because the local crops have failed. They felt they had no option but to fight the company, and set up a 24-hour vigil opposite the plant. At the end of the month, they will have been there for 647 days.

Using 1950s-style logic, the Coca-Cola Company's response has been to claim that the protests in Plachimada have been the work of Marxist agitators. Maybe its advertising agency will find some Ealing comedy-type Indian peasants to appear in the next advert, standing in front of the bottling plant, saying: "It's an 'onour to be oppressed by a company such as Coca-Cola and I don' mind a goin' thirsty neither. Not like them there whingein' Marxists and their politically motivated thirst!"

The local council has refused Coke a new licence to operate. But the company is mounting a legal fight to stay in Plachimada.

Meanwhile, the resistance to Coke is growing. In Tamil Nadu, the neighbouring state to Kerala, the company has built a plant in a joint deal with a local sugar mill company. Thousands of demonstrators protested before it was even opened - and as yet it remains closed.

After the front-page news that the level of pesticides found in Pepsi and Coke in India is about three times the level of that permitted in the US and Europe, it is fairly safe to say that Coke has an image problem that the advertisers might not be able to solve.

A new report by Christian Aid, Behind the Mask: the real face of corporate social responsibility, includes a case study of the Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada