Toxic India
Times of India
August 4, 2006

The problem of high pesticide levels starts with colas and extends to all that we eat and drink. A follow-up study by Centre for Science and Environment on pesticide content in 11 soft drink brands suggests that little has changed since the earlier controversy on the subject that stretched from February 2003 to November 2004.

The sample survey of 25 bottling plants in 12 cities concludes that average pesticide residue, at 11.85 particles per billion, was 23 times higher than norms set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).

BIS norms have not been notified despite a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the issue between August 2003 and September 2004, which confirmed CSE's findings. Why act against colas when everything else is contaminated, one might ask.

This commonly posed query lets cola brands off the hook on several counts. Cola manufacturers cannot blame the quality of groundwater, as they sought to do two years ago, for their own lapses.

There are technologies in place for them to reduce pesticide content if households can take care of such impurities, what prevents companies from doing the same?

Cola companies would rather not be on the wrong side of the law in developed countries, given strong enforcement mechanisms and effectiveness of civil society groups.

Their seemingly lax approach in markets such as India's smacks of double standards. India might not have a notified set of norms, but that should not deter manufacturers from being responsible.

If the brand image of cola makers suffers yet again, they have only themselves to blame. Their dubious environment record on another front their plants contaminating soil and water is another issue they should address, before conscious consumers, in India and elsewhere, upset their applecart.

However, the government should not restrict its focus to colas merely because of their visibility, and ignore contamination in other substances.

The cola investigation in 2003 and 2004 brought to the fore the multiplicity of agencies dealing with food contamination. The JPC recommended an integrated food law and a single implementing authority, but there has been little movement on that front.

The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act applies only to packaged food; contaminants in unbranded products, such as vegetables and spices, are anyone's guess.

BIS certification ought to become a more serious affair than it is at present. For such mechanisms to work, India needs a vibrant consumer movement to match its rise as an economic power.

Apart from the fact that Indian consumers deserve better, Brand India cannot be seen as consuming and producing toxic stuff.

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