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Yeh dil mange more

August 27, 2003

The controversy over pesticides residues in soft drinks marketed in India, mostly by global MNCs, has put several parties in somewhat unkindly light. The foremost is the Government of India.

For the second time in less than a year, first over the contents of bottled water and now soft drinks, we have to face the fact that Government of India has no standards. In one case there are all kinds of standards for what goes into soft drinks except the water.

And where there are standards for water, they deal with things like micro organisms likely to cause disease and harmful chemicals but don't mention pesticides. Under the circumstances it is a bit disingenuous for the government and its honourable minister to say that the soft drinks concerned are safe and within standards.

Of course they are within standards, the standards don't exist. The minister has further gone on to clarify that when the European Union standards for packaged drinking water become applicable, the government would consider making them applicable also to water going into soft drinks.

This brings us to the question of the EU standards. Are they good or bad or non-tariff barriers by another name and meant only for foreign produce? If they are no good and trade barriers by another name, then they should be thrown out with the bathwater or the water that goes into some of these soft drinks.

If they are then all those who raised doubts about their authenticity should eat crow. If they are no good then why on earth is GoI saying that it reserves the right to adopt them later for soft drinks also?

While exonerating the soft drinks companies, GoI seems not to have made up its mind as to which standards to follow.

The minister also performed the unique somersault of first exonerating the companies and then saying 'no fair' when they went to town saying she had cleared them. Virtually the entire media told the nation after the minister's parliamentary statement that she had given the soft drink wallas a clean chit.

And now comes the final charade, of telling one of the companies which put out ads quoting the minister that it must withdraw the ad and apologise for misrepresenting her.

Clearly the government wanted to have the cake and eat it too. It wanted to clear the soft drink companies but did not want to be seen to be doing so. This is naiveté of a very high order. The thinking in this case may well have been done by the bureaucrats in the ministries concerned.

They are some of the greatest sophists who alone are capable of first saying that we are OK (otherwise they have to answer as to what they were doing all these years) and then in the same breath adding, but if you think something is lacking then we can adopt your rules of the game, just to make you happy.

Other than the politicians and their henchmen bureaucrats those who have covered themselves in mud are the leaders of the soft drink companies.

One of them first categorically told the media that their beverage was as good as that sold in Europe and then promptly got down to working on the sentiments of this government of deshbhaktas that it should be beneath their dignity to accept the standards of a videshi sarkar.

Another soft drinks company has even now many billboards and leaflets strewn all over Delhi saying that all that's been appearing in the media is a canard.

These corporate leaders right from day one used every trick in the book to discredit and question the finding of the Centre for Science and Environment.

They deserve all the millions their parents spend on them for their ability to manage their environment. Their only shortcoming is that they are hardly the bearers of the high international standards MNCs are supposed to represent. If it makes them happy I can recall my experience in covering Maruti years ago.

When I asked the senior official of the company why, with all the high Japanese standards, it did not put seatbelts in its cars, his reply was that it was not mandated by GoI! Those were the days when Maruti was a monopoly and made huge profits but still could not give up the few hundred rupees that a pair of seatbelts cost per car.

If there is any lesson in all this then it is that the ultimate friend of the hapless consumer is the gutsy NGO. The history of what the campaigning Ralph Nader has done for automobile safety is too well known to need repetition.

When it comes to a situation like this, the massive resources of the corporate, Indian or foreign (remember the quality of Bisleri water), are more often used to manipulate the environment rather than simply go to all lengths to conform to the best standards.

It therefore falls on the consumer to support to the hilt the NGOs who take themselves seriously and demand the highest standards from them. If CSE needs more money to do all kinds of confirmatory tests then by all means let's collect it for them.

Let's readily agree that CSE may have erred here and there but there is no question about the basic veracity of what it unearthed in the first place. The pesticides content in a majority of samples tested even by the government fail the EU standards by several times. So much for bringing global standards to India.

The best way to take this whole thing forward is to expand the campaign to include the harmful substances that permeate all food items in India. This and not just the problem of soft drinks should be the concern of the parliamentary committee.

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