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The Cola rage

By Claude Arpi
August 07, 2006 14:18 IST
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I have a problem with the media blitz around colas and their pesticide content. To me, it seems too 'politically correct'. It is true that the easiest thing to do in India is to bash the US, its president, its policies or its (multi)national companies. I know it because I often indulge in the game myself (these days about the 'nuclear deal'). But let us look at facts.

Three years after its first 'cover story' in Down to Earth magazine on pesticide residue in soft drinks, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has just released new findings. A fresh nationwide study shows that the scenario has not changed much: soft drinks remain unsafe and unhealthy, severely compromising public health.

My problem is not with the CSE scientific findings which I believe are correct, but the way the issue is presented. The very title of the Down to Earth editorial, 'Street Fight' is politically oriented. This could be acceptable if it would not divert the public from real and far more vital issues

The editorial condemns in strong terms 'the two companies affected -- Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.' The communiqué reads: 'What we had not anticipated was the sheer power and the virulence of the attack.'

The two US companies say the CSE 'Were incidental to our story on pesticide contamination and the need for food standards to regulate safety. The fact that two US multinationals were involved was a mere coincidence. But not for them.'

Well, it is not fully true that the US companies were only 'incidental'; the 'imperialist' companies were definitely the villains of the first 'story'. The title of the article was 'Colanisation's dirty dozen'. Does it not already give a (politically correct) twist to the 'story'?

Now I am not a speaker for these American cola companies. Indeed, I never drink the stuff, and why would I, when I live in the land of Chai? But I found myself wondering: why blame the US cola companies alone? The answer: Probably because the magazine sells better! And you have more chance to become a people's hero!

The CSE accuses the swadeshi-oriented (then) health minister of the National Democratic Alliance Sushma Swaraj of having taken the side of the multinationals. They say that when she drafted the terms of reference of the Joint Parliamentary Committee, her objective was to turn the exercise into an enquiry against them.

But, thank god (and the wisdom of the legislators) the 15-member JPC 'created to bury us... ended up vindicating our study. It endorsed our position that the country needed health-based standards for food and water security.'

It is a great pity that such a serious matter (far more serious than any 'mole stories') taken by Parliament is given such a twist. After all, when in 2003, the CSE's Pollution Monitoring Laboratory made public its analysis of the contents of 12 soft drink brands sold in Delhi, it was the result of a scientific study, not a political vendetta.

'The PML tested the cold drink samples for 16 organochlorine pesticides, 12 organophosphorus pesticides and 4 synthetic pyrethroides -- all of these are commonly used in India as insecticides, in agricultural fields as well as at home.' Organochlorine pesticides (lindane) were found in all cold drink samples. 'This deadly insecticide damages the body's central nervous system as well as immune system and is a confirmed carcinogen.'

In some drinks, the concentration amounted to 42 times the 0.0001 mg/l EEC limit -- a set of standards stipulated by the European Economic Commission. On an average, lindane concentration in all brands was 0.0021 mg/l, or 21 times higher than the EEC norm.

The JPC had pointed to the true nature of the situation: the problem of pesticide residue in food products in India is that 'it mainly percolates from fruit and agriculture crops wherein pesticides are used to kill pests.'

It is not that the 'imperialists' are pouring a few mg of pesticide into each bottle, but it is the general consequence of the agricultural policy of the Indian government. It is a far more tricky issue.

The JPC even admitted that 'other countries' use degradable pesticides which are not persistent and that is not the case in India.

I have myself experienced the truth of this statement. A few months back, I had been sick, as were my family and neighbours. A large number of people known to me were unwell with a sore throat, lingering cough, breathing problems, giddiness and severe headaches, and this for more than two weeks.

The doctors were unanimous: the fault lay in the heavy spraying of cashew fields in our area. Today, farmers are encouraged (and given subsidies) to use DDT and other pesticides (elsewhere banned) to 'protect' their crop.

The cost of healthcare to the farmers and the local population is never taken into account when the government decides its 'agricultural' policies. And here, there is no multinational in the picture!

How long will the attention of the nation be diverted towards the cola companies alone?

A petition has been filed in the Supreme Court by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation alleging that soft drinks sold in India contained highly toxic, acidic and addictive ingredients dangerous for human consumption. A notice was issued to Coca-Cola and Pepsico seeking a direction to disclose the ingredients in their soft drinks. This is fine, but what about the vegetables or the fruits we eat daily? Nobody is forced to drink colas, but how to survive without milk or sabzi?

It reminded me of the Clemenceau episode. On February 15, French President Jacques Chirac made a dramatic announcement -- the decommissioned aircraft carrier Le Clemenceau, which was waiting off India's territorial waters pending a clearance from the Supreme Court, was recalled to France. The ship would not end its life on the coast of Gujarat. The old glory of the French navy was to be brought back to the naval base in the port town of Brest in France. It probably saved the French government some embarrassment since President Chirac was due to begin a State visit to India four days later.

In India, though, it had to do with more than just embarrassment. It was the end of a fierce campaign, in which the media and several political parties (particularly the Left) had participated. Chirac's decision was taken as a great victory -- rich countries and former colonial powers would not be allowed to dump their waste on poor India.

But, as it always happens in such media blitz, the real problem was skimmed over, and everyone closed their eyes to the continuing jeopardy to the lives of tens of thousands of people working in asbestos factories across India. Lobbies engineered the 'diversion' of the problem, and throughout the entire controversy, it was as if no asbestos existed elsewhere in India.

Today, in putting the blame on the 'imperialist' cola companies, the same tragedy is reenacted.

The CSE argues: 'The companies say milk and vegetables have more pesticides than colas. But milk and vegetables also have nutrition. They give us something in this poison-nutrition trade-off. We get nothing with colas. Just pesticides. Harmful and deadly.'

Once again one fails to understand the logic of the reasoning. Because 'we get nothing out of the colas' (I agree fully), is it a reason to ignore the larger issue?

The CSE concludes rightly 'These issues concern our bodies. Our health!' But colas concern a relatively small portion of the population, while the other food items concerns everybody.

Today it is fashionable to talk about the preciousness of Planet Earth, educated persons say that it is our personal responsibility to keep her alive. Can we expect the government to take the lead and give the example?

The health minister has started his own crusade... against soft drinks. He is soon expected to make a statement in Parliament. He has already declared: 'I have been saying for some time that film stars should stop promoting soft drinks. They have (an) adverse impact on (a) child's health,' but what about the contaminated rotis and daal?

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Claude Arpi