for National Geographic News in New Delhi
Two giant international soft-drink manufacturers, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, are under fire in India for colorful advertisements that were painted onto rocks in the ecologically fragile Himalayas.
The Supreme Court of India recently served legal notices to the companies, charging them with violation of environmental laws, specifically the Forest Conservation Act of India. The notices refer to the damage caused by advertisements painted on eco-fragile rocks.
The Coke and Pepsi ads, painted in the bright colors associated with the two brands, appear on rocks along a road in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in northern India.
The legal action came in response to a recent news report in the The Indian Express that brought the ads to the attention of officials, environmentalists, and the public.
According to the newspaper, the soft-drink ads were paintedalong with local advertisingon rocks dotted all along a 56-kilometer (33-mile) stretch of road between Manali, a popular hill resort in Himachal Pradesh, and Rohtang Pass.
"This isn't a free-for-all, and painting old, geologically valuable rocks this way cannot be allowed," said P. K. Manohar, an advocate with the Supreme Court in New Delhi and member of Legal Action for Wildlife and Environment, a group of lawyers working for environmental protection and legislation in India.
Scientists have voiced concern that the paint may have destroyed the mini-ecosystems of microbes and mosses that live on the rocks.
In India it is illegal to advertise anywhere without permission, unless it is an advertising balloon floated from a private rooftop.
The advertising daubed on the rocks has made a number of people angry, and not only because of possible ecological damage. For many people there is aesthetic damage caused by the brightly colored advertisements, marring the beautiful landscape of the Himalayas.
The Chief Justice of India, B.N. Kirpal, headed the three-judge panel that issued the legal notices to the parent companies of Coke and Pepsi. The court had taken note of the newspaper report while hearing a case involving forest conservation in India, saying that the companies responsible should be "made to pay" for damage caused to India's environment. Kirpal also mentioned in court that the painting of advertisements on rocks in forest areas was disturbing.
C.K. Varshney, a professor at the School of Environmental Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, applauded the legal move. "This is really a decision in the right direction, and perhaps ought to have been taken long back, for it really sets the rigor India needs in dealing with environmental issues," he said.