Debating India

INDIA

Cola troubles

Kamal NARANG

Monday 1 March 2004, by NARANG*Kamal

THE Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) has corroborated the Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE) claims of pesticide content in soft drinks.

Sunita Narain, Director, Centre for Science and Environment.

The issue exploded last August. The CSE’s investigation found shocking levels of pesticide residue in 12 brands of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo owing to contaminated groundwater sources (Frontline, August 16, 2003). A 15-member JPC headed by Sharad Pawar that was set up to investigate the matter has confirmed the CSE’s findings, though the five laboratories in which the test were done revealed different levels of toxic content. The committee lambasted the government for its "inaction and apathy", urging it to establish an independent food safety authority. Said Sanjay Nirupam, Shiv Sena Member of Parliament who served on the JPC: "You do not find pesticides in cola in the United States, so why should it be any different for the Indian consumer?"

Although the cola companies claimed that the franchisee bottling system made quality checks difficult, the committee said that this line of defence was "unsatisfactory". Both companies claimed to be reviewing the report even as PepsiCo stuck by the stand that it has "always produced beverages in India that are absolutely safe and made according to the same high quality standards we use around the world". After the revelations last year, both multinational companies had gone on a major image-repair exercise, even as the CSE contended that the fault lay with the vague and contradictory safety regulations in India.

The JPC also pulled up the companies for using caffeine in their drinks to keep consumers hooked and for not informing the consumers about the caffeine content. Other countries like Australia and China have placed restrictions on this practice.

Indicting the cola bottling plants in Kerala, which resulted in pollution and depletion of groundwater, the committee recommended that they be charged for groundwater use (for processing and as raw material), and be forced to recharge the sources. It suggested that the Ministry of Water Resources work in tandem with State governments to curb commercial exploitation of groundwater.

Most significantly, however, the JPC suggested the formulation of a set of minimum norms to control the quality of potable water. The Health Ministry now plans to draft an integrated food law that would address all these safety concerns. CSE director Sunita Narain congratulated the committee for "putting public health first" and predicted that disciplining these companies in India would make it "incumbent on other governments to adopt these standards".

Amulya Gopalakrishnan

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P.S.

Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 04, February 14 - 27, 2004.

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