| An anti-war protest in Calcutta. (Reuters)
Calcutta, April 5: From Kidderpore to Free School Street and New Market to Park Street and beyond, a number of dealers of chips and soft drinks are taking a quiet caution. Popular brands like Lays potato chips, Lehar Kurkure and Cheetos — all products of Pepsi Foods Ltd — are disappearing from their shelves.
The reason: Fear of being attacked by anti-war protesters for selling products of US companies.
As American troops advanced towards Baghdad on the orders of President George W. Bush and the anti-war cries grew louder, Muzaffar Hossain, one of the bigger stockists of Pepsi soft drinks and snacks in central Calcutta, decided to lie low. “Seven days ago, I decided that I would not take any further stocks from Pepsi, be it cold drinks or snacks,” he said.
“I have some of their products with me at my shop (on S.N. Banerjee Road) which I am selling at the moment and after they run out I will decide on what to do depending on the mood of the people. But one thing is certain: I don’t want trouble on my hands.”
On Chowringhee Road, K. Singh, of K. Singh’s Store, has gone a step ahead: not only has he not taken fresh supplies of Pepsi and Coke, he has removed whatever he had of these two brands from his shop. Thums Up and Limca adorn his shop today.
“A few days back, I heard that a few shops in Metiabruz were vandalised for stocking Pepsi and Coke,” Singh said. “So I decided it was safer not to sell these products for the moment. It doesn’t matter if I sell other products of these companies, as long as they don’t boldly bear the labels of Coke and Pepsi.”
The mood is much the same at Taj Mahal in nearby Hogg Lane, a popular chips and soft drinks shop owned by Mohammad Moniruddin. Producing cuttings of newspaper reports on attacks on a Nike showroom and Citibank in Calcutta, he said: “After this, do you think it wise to stock Coke and Pepsi when I run the risk of my shop being vandalised' Let the situation in Iraq normalise and then I will go back to keeping these items.”
For the moment, Moniruddin has replaced Lays and Lehar with local varieties.
As for the cold drinks, he will discreetly sell the bottles of Coke and Pepsi till his stocks run out. “I have not taken any fresh stocks ever since the war began,” he said.
If Hossain, Singh and Moniruddin have decided to exercise “self restraint” while dealing with Pepsi and Coke products, Bidhan Nayak, who has a shop at 135 Harish Mukherjee Road, may soon be arm-twisted into not selling these products.
“Leaders of a nationalised bank’s union on Hazra Road came to me and said I had to stop selling Coke and Pepsi and take down their hoardings, otherwise they would destroy my shop,” Nayak said. “I reasoned with them but they would not listen. I have still not buckled under pressure. But if they come a second time, I will have no option other than not selling these products.”
Deputy commissioner of police, headquarters, K.L. Tamta said there was nothing to “worry about”. “Actually, in the popular psyche, Coke and Pepsi represent the US like no other product, which is why the dealers feel a bit vulnerable. But we have assured dealers of Pepsi and Coke that we will give whatever protection is necessary. In any case, these products are still available in large parts of Calcutta. Maybe a few dealers are not selling them.”
Executive vice-president (eastern India) of Pepsi India Holdings Ltd Venkat Shankar refused to comment on this. He said only the vice-president, corporate communications, Annie Cyriac, based in Gurgaon, is the competent authority to issue a press statement. She was, however, not available for comment.
The operations director of Coca-Cola in Calcutta, Jaspal Singh, also refused to comment.