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The Rediff Interview/CSE Director Sunita Narain

'Why are there no norms for the soft drinks sector?'

Tara Shankar Sahay

August 06, 2003

The entire Delhi press corps seemed to have descended on the Centre for Science and Environment to speak to its Director Sunita Narain.

Her sensational disclosure about toxic pesticides being present in soft drinks produced by Pepsico and Coke had many influential editors imploring her on her mobile phone to grant interviews to their correspondents.

She spoke briefly to each of them, indicating that she would be glad to meet the leading soft drink manufacturers if they dragged her to court on the controversial issue. Chief Correspondent Tara Shankar Sahay was one of the journalists who met the crusader.

Are the battle lines clearly etched between you and the soft drink giants since they have threatened to take you to court over your allegations? Are you prepared to take them on?

The unfortunate part of this is that they (Coke and Pepsi) can file a case against us. But we cannot file a case against them because technically they have done nothing illegal. I don't see the battle lines against us and Coke/Pepsi, I see the battle lines against CSE and the government.


Because for me the basic issue is that the regulations in India are so poor that frankly, these companies, if they are doing something wrong, there is no check on them.

I think the most unfortunate part of this is that under the law, if there are pesticides in soft drinks, there is nothing wrong because we have no law which mandates the quantity of pesticides in water. We have no law which mandates the quality of water that is used in the manufacture of soft drinks.

So, therefore, I cannot go to court against them. There is no law which allows me to go to court against them. This is the failure of Indian democracy that large companies can take us to court, but we can't.

But surely you won't sit idle. What are you going to do?

They (the soft drink manufacturers) have the full legal right to take us to court and I respect that legal right. And if they do take us to court, we would be delighted to see them there.

Do your findings mean that a person drinking these soft drinks is liable to toxicity, even serious diseases like cancer, 30 or 40 fold more prone than somebody drinking these beverages in the US?

That is not what we have said. We have said very clearly that the pesticide levels we have found in the soft drinks we tested were 30 to 40 times higher than the norms that are set in Europe.

Now in terms of the risk to the human body, it is very difficult to establish because the issue is that you don't have a clear co-relation in terms of how much you drink and what is the impact. It has a lot to do with the body, it has a lot to do with age. Then it depends on your immune system which is already under attack (from other sources). What (these) pesticides are, and this is the most important thing to understand.

All soft drinks banned in Parliament

What is your definition in this context?

These are triggers. They trigger other diseases. They are not an end in themselves. So you will never go to a doctor and get a certificate that somebody died because of pesticides. I can die because of cancer or lung disease or something similar. The disease process will get exacerbated because my body has less immunity. And that is really what science from across the world shows.

What do you say to the assertion that comparing Euro standards with Indian standards in testing toxicity in soft drinks is unfair because of the wide gap?

Isn't that illogical? Wouldn't you say that if the quality of water is much worse, you must have even more stringent norms? I would argue that even the European Economic Community standard is not good enough for us. I think that the most important thing is not the fact whether the EEC is adequate or not, the point very clearly is how seriously do we take the issue of health.

And if health is important, then we better wake up to the harsh realities strewn all around us.

PCB too finds carcinogens in Coke plant sludge

In the absence of a regulatory framework in India, where does your battle proceed from here?

I think our battle is the regulatory framework. I am absolutely clear that democracy in this country will prevail because no amount of hanky-panky can conceal unpleasant realities which the government has been ignoring.

Our relentless struggle will lead to a tighter regulatory framework. It is important that these issues are raised and the government is made to realise them. I am glad that to some extent the consumers are getting aware. Those are the issues that are out there now.

What are your other concerns?

We want to find out why there are no norms for this (soft drinks) sector. What has been the role of the government authorities in this respect, why were they (the manufacturers) virtually let off, why was there no awareness that there were a lot of chinks in this sector's armour? Many such questions agitate us and we are determined to get to the bottom of all this.

What has been the media's role in all this?

We are glad the media is playing a constructive role. As you can see, every newspaper or magazine wants to find out more about health hazards in our food and water. The television channels are just as keen in disseminating information ever since we blew the lid off these harsh realities.

Regulate soft drink firms' operations, urge activists

What is your message to the people?

They have a long struggle ahead of them. But increasing awareness about such issues, as I said before, will bring about a qualitative change in people's thinking and force the government to have stricter regulatory norms.


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