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Tasting our thunder


In the recent face-off between the soft drink majors and the people, there has been no debate. Instead, there has been `a trial by media'.


From "cola versus cola" then, it has now become "out with the colas".

HAVE you noticed how Pepsi versus Coke has now become Pepsi and Coke? The battle for Indian turf between the two international soft drink giants has been rivetting stuff: they have spent fortunes fighting each other in the market place and everyone has been a beneficiary. Right down from Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and company, to television channels, India's cricket team, ad film makers, bottlers, truckers, grocery shops... You name it. Suddenly, the two are fighting the same battle together.

Is this a battle they can win? At first glance, this seems unlikely because the report of high level toxicity in their drinks tabled by the Centre for Science and Environment, is pretty damning: pesticide residues found in the drinks were up to 36 times the EEC limit. That's not just high; it's incredibly high.

Having said that, we should pause for a moment and try and get some sense of proportion back into the story. You can best do that by asking some questions: Was the CSE methodology correct? No one yet has cast any doubts on this NGO's credibility, but even then; as has been seen in sports dope testing and other forms of testing, there are too often discrepancies in results done by two different laboratories. This is a matter which should be sorted out by the government away from the glare of publicity.

Are the results really that bad? When the pesticide residues are present in multiples of what they should be, that seems like an absurd question to ask. It's being asked because the figures are miniscule, going from two to four places of decimals.

The other reason it is being asked is in the next question.


Are EEC limits sacrosanct? In some cases, countries (or groups of countries) put down a standard in order to discourage imports or dumping from other countries). Is it at all possible that these standards were prescribed by the EEC to discourage U.S. imports? Why don't we have our own standards? What has emerged from the present debate is that we have no standards, at least not mandatory ones for soft aerated drinks. When issues of toxicity are vital, shouldn't these have been in place? And shouldn't the, health ministry be responsible for enforcing the standards as well? Why should the country have to depend on an NGO to test these "Weapons" of mass consumption? What happened to the last CSE study? A few months ago, the CSE did a study of bottled water, which was almost as damning as the present study. Was any action taken on the report? Were errant companies punished? Has the quality of bottled water improved since then or do we have to wait for the next CSE report to find out? Has pesticide usage gone completely out of control? The pesticide industry is large (Rs. 4,000 crores) so it has clout. Has that stopped the government from enforcing some control over it? Apparently as many as 31 pesticides banned abroad are in wide use here. (That figure comes from a statement made a few days ago in the Lok Sabha). Why is that permitted? Some of these questions may have no relevance. Some of them may be deliberately provocative (like the EEC versus the U.S. one). But the asking of questions is part of a dialogue which any mature country needs to have before jumping to conclusions.

What we are witnessing in the Coke and Pepsi versus the People of India confrontation is the exact opposite of maturity. To start with, there has been no debate at all. Instead of that, there has been a trial by media. And we have had the appalling sight of MPs staging a walkout from the Lok Sabha, politicians of all hues smashing Coke and Pepsi bottles, and demonstrations and protest marches everywhere. Is this not going completely overboard? Why didn't the water test results bring out the same kind of response? We can guess why: in that test, the water bottled by Indian companies, came out far worse than Coke's and Pepsi's brands.

The noise being made now has obviously nothing to do with politicians' concern for our health; it has to do with the media attention they are guaranteed in any large-scale MNC-bashing. Would anyone have bothered if Rogers' and Dukes' drinks had come out badly in the CSE report? You bet not. There is no publicity value in it.

The Coke and Pepsi road show has thus achieved two negative objectives. It has shown that we are still an immature nation, not given to any rational debate.

And it has shown that politicians are still against foreign companies coming into India and will use every trick in the book to let the world know about it. Is this how we plan to attract foreign direct investment?

Anil Dharker is a journalist, media critic and writer.

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