Notorious fizz

The multinational colas swamp the public consciousness with their advertising blitz, but a parliamentary committee has been doing its job in India.

In New Delhi a new advertisement featuring three of the leading Bollywood actors was perfectly timed to take the fizz out of the eagerly awaited report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on pesticide residues in (and safety standards for) soft drinks, fruit juices and other beverages. No surprise, therefore, like the escape of impregnated carbon dioxide from the cola bottle, that the historic findings of the report had evaporated from public memory within a week of the report's release!

Tabled simultaneously in both houses of the Parliament on 4 February 2004, the JPC report put an official stamp on the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment´s claims that indeed soft drinks contained pesticide residues. Though the findings were nothing less than historic, they could not make a dent in the face of the publicity blitz unleashed by the cola multinationals, which have comforted the public with the belief that the drinks are safe.

The `clean chit´ provided to the multinationals by none other than the country´s health minister, Sushma Swaraj, prior to the setting up of the JPC, had already worked in their favour. While the 15-member JPC sat to examine all the relevant facts in setting up a comprehensive public health agenda, the cola companies were busy building up their ad campaign out of a formidable war chest with which to buy the most popular Bollywood stars.

The JPC had little option but to hold the Ministry of Health responsible for the spread of misinformation, but by that time, the damage had already been done. For the INR 6,000 crore (close to USD 1330 million) soft drinks industry that is growing at an impressive rate of 7-8 percent annually, the six months spent by the JPC in filing its report was a period to let  loose the blitz, with not a second to be lost. And, it did not miss any minute of this opportunity! When it comes to business in fluid products, to begin with, six months actually translates into no less than 3000 million bottles of soft drinks pushed down the throats of unsuspecting public.

The JPC was shocked to find that the burgeoning soft drinks industry was unregulated. It is exempted from industrial license under the Industries Act of 1951 and gets the convenience of a one-time operating license under the 1955 Food Products Order (FPO). All that the industry has to comply with for unrestricted operations is the requirement of a no-objection-certificate from the state government and clearance from the state Pollution Control Board.

Finally, what was not done in decades got accomplished in days. Within 20 days of the CSE expose in August 2003, the Ministry of Health had brought in a draft notification to cover soft drinks, fruit juices and other beverages under the same standards as that for packaged drinking water. The JPC observed the Government´s over-enthusiasm with scepticism, noting that the ministry has not taken the opinion of the statutory Central Committee on Food Standards.

The Committee further wondered at the Government´s wisdom of clubbing soft drinks with fruit juices when the maximum residue levels (MRL) fixed in the case of raw fruits and vegetables were much higher under the existing provisions of the 1954 Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA). Observing gross negligence, the JPC recommended that MRL be fixed for all the pesticides registered in the country. Shockingly, the MRL of only 71 of the 181 registered pesticides has been fixed under 1954 PFA Act.

The JPC had been particularly concerned about water quality, as it constitutes 86 to 92 percent of any soft drink. Surprisingly, neither is water defined properly nor any standards laid down under FPA, FPO or the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). Given the fact that prone-to-contamination groundwater is the source at the cola factories across the country, quality of water assumes greater significance.  The Committee was concerned about the use of ground water by cola companies.

Ground reality
Do the companies even pay for the water that is pumped to fill some 7000 million bottles of soft drinks every year? Apparently not. Though the companies have taken the mandatory permission to pump groundwater at their factory premises across the country, the actual water withdrawal has been free everywhere. The shocked and dismayed JPC questioned the Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, about the ground reality. "So far, as we know, the Government is charging no money for this purpose", came the rather lame reply. When asked how it was that the cola majors had free access to groundwater, and that too at the cost of public health, citing the legal position of groundwater being bundled together with land ownership, the Ministry of Water Resources expressed its inability to levy charges.

In light of the Kerala High Court judgement in the case of Plachimada plant of Coca Cola, the JPC questioned the stand taken by the bureaucrat at the Ministry of Water Resources. The court has directed no uncertain terms that the use of groundwater is free only in case the same is used for domestic or agricultural purpose by the owner. In case of its commercial use, the court observed, the panchayat and the state are bound to protect groundwater from exploitation. The committee, meanwhile, took strong exception to the ineffective functioning of the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), constituted on the directions of the Supreme Court to regulate groundwater exploitation.

In many ways, the JPC report reads like a charge-sheet on the functioning of the concerned ministries of the government. However, the report makes significant recommendations to improve the situation. They include the setting up of stringent standards for pesticide residues in soft drinks, regulating groundwater extraction for commercial purposes, the inclusion of water within the definition of 'food', and developing coordinated action by research institutions in the public domain. The JPC has thus unleashed an agenda that is aimed at providing safe food and water to the masses.

Though the JPC report has brought public health onto the centre stage, it is not yet clear if its recommendations would translate into concrete action. With about eight different ministries dealing with a plethora of laws and regulations on food products — law enforcement is at best cosmetic and loose. Shockingly, a significant public-health issue that impacts the life of millions is not an electoral issue for the April-May general elections in India.

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Himal Southasian