New Delhi - The affirmation by an Indian parliamentary committee of the findings by an environmental group - that beverage giants Coca -Cola and Pepsi Cola have been using pesticide-contaminated water -- underscores the need for independent food standards in the country.
The report of the all-party, 15-member committee, released on Thursday, was constituted to investigate the claim made in August by the non-government Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) that the colas made by the two transnational corporations had unacceptably high levels of commonly used pesticides. These pesticides -- which include Lindane, DDT, Chlopyrifos and Malathion -- have apparently contaminated groundwater sources because India has yet to formulate a comprehensive policy on pesticides used extensively in agriculture and vector control.
While indicting the cola companies, the committee laid much of the blame on a multiplicity of government bodies that functioned independently of each other and laid down numerous unenforceable laws.
"Such a situation has obviously resulted in loose administration in the enforcement of the various laws with the result that the consumer is the ultimate sufferer," it noted.
The committee also endorsed the long-held demand of consumer groups that India establish an independent food safety and standards authority to ensure the availability of safe and wholesome food for the public.
"We see the report of the committee as a vindication of our concern for public health," CSE director Sunita Narain said.
Narain told IPS in an interview that she had doubts about the shape of the parliamentary report given the clout of the cola TNCs. "But they listened to us carefully and patiently and came out with this intelligent report."
Faced with a 40 percent drop in sales the cola products, the two companies -- competitors in normal times -- joined forces to launch a campaign to discredit CSE.
They even published purportedly independent results from selected laboratories in western countries to show that their products - sales are a combined six million bottles annually -- are safe.
"The committee feels that it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Health to ensure that no misinformation is spread by any company with regard to its products," the report by the parliamentary committee said.
The committee also noted that that the cola companies are lacing their beverages with large doses of caffeine, which is known to be addictive, without mentioning it on the labels.
"We have asked the concerned ministry to at least ensure that consumers be given a choice as to whether they wanted caffeine in their colas and if they did, how much of it," said Sharad Pawar, a politician and leader of the committee.
Narain said the cola companies could not plead ignorance of the effects of caffeine since they were already required to restrict its use in carbonated drinks in countries like Australia, China and Canada.
The committee in its report demanded that the colas now display labels with "advisory statements to the effect that the beverage contains caffeine and the same is not recommended for children, pregnant or lactating women and individuals sensitive to caffeine". Union Health Minister Sushma Swaraj, who in August said the cola companies had violated no law, is expected to make the government's official reaction to the committee's report known at a press conference Saturday.
But late Friday, an official with the health ministry said that a law based on the parliamentary committee's report could be in place by the middle of February. "We have agreed in principle to accept the report in toto," the official said.
The coal companies have, so far, brazened out the damaging effects of the committee's report. "We have produced beverages of the same high-quality standards we use around the world," said a Pepsi statement. "Our products already meet the norms recommended," added a Coca-Cola executive.
But the softdrink manufacturers appear to be on weak ground. Yet another issue raised by the CSE and now brought to the notice of the government is that of paying for water consumed in large quantities by the cola manufacturers, which control 80 percent of the two billion U.S. dollar business.
Because existing law places no restrictions on the extraction of groundwater, cola companies have been found, in several instances, to have taken to mining for water to meet their requirements.
In December, for example, the Kerala High Court ruled that Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Plachimada village in the southern state only owned the land on which it stood but not the ground, which it said was only "property held in trust".
But Narain said the best results to emerge from the committee's report was its strong advocacy of the need for the introduction of norms for monitoring the quality of ordinary drinking water.
"This is significant because more than 1,600 citizens are reported to die everyday because of water-borne diseases and soon there could be provisions to take authorities to court if they safe water is not made available by civic authorities," she said.
Pawar said he sees no reason why India should deny its people basic standards such as those prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
"It only costs the cola companies a fraction of the 12 rupees (about 30 U.S. cents) it charges consumers per bottle to ensure that the contents are pesticide free," he pointed out.