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Not consumer raj

August 09, 2003

The retired marketing director of an oil marketing company confessed privately some years ago that roughly half the petrol sold in Delhi was adulterated. As much was implicitly conceded more recently, when Bharat Petroleum made the purity of its petrol (at only selected outlets!) a marketing USP, with the "Pure for sure" campaign.

That the campaign struck an immediate chord with consumers told its own story -- motorists knew all along that they were being sold adulterated fuel. The odd thing is that, at the outskirts of the capital, there is a massive petrol testing facility, set up at a cost of something like three crore rupees, which no one uses.

One reason for that is that you and I, as ordinary users of petrol, cannot get the stuff tested there, it can only be done by somebody who is officially authorised. And the official system, you guessed correctly, is not interested in testing the purity of petrol.

This comes to mind in a week when two different private organisations this past week have highlighted health issues by undertaking private testing of food products.

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The first is of course the Centre for Science and Environment, which has hit the headlines with its discovery that very high levels of pesticides are to be found in popular soft drinks sold by two global giants.

But there is also the case of Zee TV, which has used a simple testing mechanism to unearth milk that is made from urea -- and which is then passed off as dairy milk.

The question is, why does the government not go after cases of adulteration or product impurity or products that are outright fakes, when it has a vast machinery at its disposal, many laws, multiple supervising agencies, sundry advisory committees, and no shortage of laboratories to do the actual work?

Indeed, how does a government lab in Kerala first clear Coca-Cola of the charge that it is spewing out harmful sludge, only to confirm it later? And, even more important, why does it take an NGO to point out that there is no law in the country that makes it mandatory (in a legally enforceable way) for civic authorities to supply water that is of drinking quality; indeed, that there is no legal standard for defining the quality of water that goes into a soft drink. The over-all answer may be that all this is yet more evidence of how dysfunctional the government has become.

There is no shortage of ministries involved in looking into food issues. There is the food ministry itself, apart from the ministry for food processing industries, the consumer affairs ministry, the health ministry and (for some issues) the environment ministry. There is no shortage of laws either; indeed 14 cover this sector, as Down to Earth magazine has pointed out in its issue on the soft drinks expose.

There is the Prevention of Adulteration Act; there is the Essential Commodities Act; the Bureau of Indian Standards Act; the Agriculture Produce Marketing and Grading Act, under which quality standards are specified; and so on.

Even when both laws and ministries are operative, there is the business of setting standards. Are these standards set under the influence of business lobbies, and is the consumer interest given short shrift because the consumer has no voice in these fora?

Are the standards that apply in other countries required here, or is that too much to ask -- because we are after all a poor country? A sugar magnate argued in the wake of the soft drink controversy, for instance, that western standards are simply too demanding and should not be expected in India.

Europe, he said, allows no sulphur in its sugar whereas Indian sugar is full of sulphur. Insisting that the mills produce sulphur-free sugar would simply mean shutting down all the sugar mills because the costs would be too high, he argued. That may be or may not be true, but it is also a self-serving argument for business.

The question left with me is, why does no one in the government go into such issues in a manner that generates public confidence? And why don't we feel ashamed when visiting VIPs and sportsmen feel obliged to bring their own water with them?

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