Sunita Narain: The Real Thing
Sunita Narain, an Indian environmentalist, has dented two of the world's
NOT much renders Sunita Narain speechless. But watching television
on August 22nd and hearing India's health minister, Anbumani Ramadoss,
describe her to parliament as a “good friend”, she was for a moment
lost for words. Mr Ramadoss was in the process of (ever so politely)
rubbishing a controversial piece of work by the Centre for Science
and Environment (CSE), Ms Narain's research and lobbying group, based
in Delhi. On August 2nd CSE had reported that its laboratory had tested
soft drinks made by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, bought in various parts
of India, and found them to contain pesticide residues far above limits
recommended by the government's Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).
Mr Ramadoss was, in effect, backing the cola giants in their rebuttal
of CSE's claims.
For some foreign firms the controversy illustrates much that is troublesome
about doing business in India's argumentative democracy. On this view,
CSE, a small, 100-strong outfit led by the articulate and charismatic
Ms Narain, wields a disproportionate influence. It is able to do so
by tapping the deep vein of Indian suspicion of globalisation in general
and of big multinationals in particular. What better exemplifies the
evils of Coca-Colanisation, say protectionists, than cola itself?
It is sweet, alluring and rather glamorous. But not only does it make
you fat and rot your teeth—it turns out to be poisonous, too. There
is even a Bollywood film, “Corporate”, inspired by CSE's cola battles.
Ms Narain, however, is adamant that CSE is not opposed to foreign
investment, economic liberalisation or private entrepreneurship. Rather,
her organisation's stress is on the need, as the economy opens up,
“to strengthen oversight and the institutions that look after the
public good”. Its real target is neither Coca-Cola nor PepsiCo, but
the government and its alleged failure to protect public health. CSE
is “in permanent opposition”. This provides it with powerful, if shifting,
political allies. The credibility won by an impressive record of accuracy
and probity has made both CSE and Ms Narain forces to be reckoned
with, by government and multinationals alike.
Its latest soft-drinks report has led the governments of several Indian
states to ban the sale of PepsiCo's and Coca-Cola's products in schools
and government offices. One state, Kerala, has introduced total prohibition,
which the companies have challenged in the courts. The bans prompted
Franklin Lavin, a senior American trade official, to weigh in, lamenting
this “setback” for the Indian economy. “At a time when India is working
hard to attract and retain foreign investment,” he noted, “it would
be unfortunate if the discussions were dominated by those who did
not want to treat foreign companies fairly.”
The damage done to sales through government action, however, is less
important than the bad publicity. Neither company will quantify the
losses it has suffered. But both have mounted campaigns advertising
the safety of their products. They say both that the CSE test results
are wrong, and that, even if true, the levels of pesticide are negligible
and of no danger at all to human health. They point out that rice,
for example, is permitted to contain 34,180 times more pesticide residues
than bottled water, which has, they say, similar levels to fizzy drinks.
They insinuate ulterior motives behind CSE's campaign.
Ms Narain argues that some residues must be tolerated in food, since
farmers use pesticides to grow crops. But for soft drinks, she says,
there is no excuse for the presence of pesticides, since the technology
exists to clean the water quite cheaply. An earlier CSE report in
2003 that found pesticide traces in the companies' products led to
the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee to investigate.
This found that there were indeed pesticides in the carbonated drinks,
and directed the government to draw up standards.
The BIS has since done that, but the standards have not been implemented.
PepsiCo argues that you can reliably test for residues in the water,
sugar and concentrate that go into its drinks, but not in the drinks
themselves. Yet, like Coca-Cola, which has produced reports from a
British laboratory apparently contradicting CSE's findings, it would
accept such “final-product standards” if “a robust enough process”
were available. It was the BIS's failure to implement such standards—blamed
by Ms Narain on the health ministry, under pressure from the cola
firms—that prompted CSE to undertake its follow-up study.
In the 25 years since Ms Narain went to work as a volunteer with CSE's
founder, Anil Agarwal, it has had successes that must make it the
envy of other activist groups. Most famously, the group's campaign
against air pollution in the 1990s was largely credited with the decision
to use compressed natural gas as fuel in Delhi's buses, taxis and
three-wheeled “autorickshaws”. Normally, says Ms Narain, “the scale
of the disaster overshadows the scale of the intervention.” In this,
however, CSE made a difference. She is just as proud, however, of
the way the group has brought rainwater-harvesting to the centre of
the debate about how to cope with India's worsening water shortage—an
achievement that won CSE last year's Stockholm water prize.
Ms Narain joined CSE from high school, because she was drawn to Agarwal's
vision of allying “the rigour of science to the passion of journalism”,
and inherited his mantle when he died in 2002. At the time, some doubted
whether CSE could maintain its standing. But this week, even Coca-Cola
came close to suing for peace, leaking a letter “respectfully” disagreeing
with the CSE laboratory's findings, but asking for talks. CSE agreed—provided
the agenda is confined to the implementation of the final-product
standard. A non-scientist, Ms Narain is proud of having one useful
journalistic habit: never being afraid to ask a stupid question. So
far, at least, CSE has not given many stupid answers.
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