by Ranjit Devraj
(IPS) NEW DELHI -- Coke and Pepsi manufacturers may brag that their colas are the same around the world. But that's not the case in India.
Indian-produced Coke and Pepsi contain pesticides and, after being hauled to court, both companies now will have to display labels saying that their colas have toxic chemicals.
The transnationals (TNCs) have been given two weeks by the Supreme Court to finalize the wording of their labels in an order that states that the words must be in the form of a warning to consumers.
Lawyers for the cola companies, that bear the world's strongest brand identities, argued that it is impossible to ascertain the exact content level of pesticides in their drink. But on Monday, the judges at the Supreme Court made an allowance that the companies would be allowed to say that the pesticide content in their bottles is less than danger levels.
The two cola majors, banned in India by socialist governments, returned in the early 1990s when India began a process of economic decontrol. By bankrupting local brands or buying them over, Coke and Pepsi now control almost 100 percent of the country's soft-drink business.
Both companies were notching up annual sales of well over six million bottles until August last year when the Delhi-based environmental group Center for Science and Environment (CSE) dramatically announced at a press conference that samples of the globally known brands sold in this country invariably had large doses of commonly available pesticides.
Among the pesticides identified by the CSE's laboratories were Lindane, DDT, Chlorpyrifos and Malathion.
Panic-stricken, the Indian Parliament soon banned the beverages from their premises as did several schools after the CSE results were made public -- despite the loud protestations from Coke and Pepsi.
Soon after the CSE tests, government laboratories run by the Central Food and Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) also found high levels of Lindane in all the samples of Pepsi and Coke they tested. Lindane is banned in the European Union and several other Western countries because of its proven toxicity to humans. It is known to cause severe liver and kidney damage.
The bad publicity has stopped the steady cola 'colonization' of India, in its tracks, and the two companies have been having nothing but bad news ever since.
After the pesticide scandal, came news that Coke and Pepsi were unlawfully pumping out huge quantities of groundwater for use at several of their bottling plants.
Speaking to IPS on Wednesday, Satish Sinha, chief program coordinator for Toxic Links -- a leading environmental group that has been fighting the indiscriminate use of pesticides in agriculture and vector control -- said the court order has "finally brought some accountability into the multi-million dollar cola business."
Sinha said that one of the preconditions behind allowing TNCs to do business in India is that they would adhere to the same standards as they would in other parts of the world -- rather than resorting to sub-standard measures that could play havoc with the health of consumers.
Monday's order from the Supreme Court was clear with the three-judge panel led by Chief Justice R.C. Lahoti ruling that consumers had a right to know what they were drinking.
The counsel for one of the cola companies argued that no pesticide was added during bottling process and that the toxic chemicals were actually found as residues in the raw materials used, for instance sugar and water. But the judges retorted that it was the responsibility of the producers to warn the consumer of where the pesticides were found -- be it in the sugar, water or any other raw material.
"The court order is a fair one in that the consumer will at least know what he or she is drinking and can now make an informed choice as to whether to buy the product or not," said Sinha.
But the contaminated water inadvertently used by the cola companies raises another serious issue in the country.
"What is worrisome is that even after the several water purification stages that the cola manufacturers insist they have been following, significant levels of pesticides are still being found in the beverages. This only indicates very high levels of pesticide contamination," said Sudhirendra Sharma, an independent consultant on water issues who has worked with the World Bank and the United Nations.
According to Sharma policy makers should have reconsidered seriously the heavy use of chemicals in the country's agricultural sector when scientists established that migratory birds were carrying back loads of pesticides after sojourns in India.
He pointed to a study recently conducted by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in the Punjab capital of Chandigarth.
In its report to the Punjab state government, PGIMER pointed out that excessive use of chemical pesticides had caused a series of deaths from cancer in the cotton- and rice- growing district of Bhatinda. The crops there were grown using irrigation water and the residue chemicals had infiltrated into the food chain.
December 8, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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