Following reports from a prominent Non-Government Organizations on
high pesticide residue in commercially available colas
the State Governments of Kerala banned the production of aerated colas by Pepsico and Coca Cola. Besides, the State Governments of Karnataka, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat have already banned their sale near schools, colleges, Government institutions.
The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) have rushed to the defense of these multinationals advocating that the State Governments follow the process of law. They argued that legally unsustainable bans will affect investments. Taking the cue, the US Government has also warned that such bans will affect the flow of investments.
The State Government have resorted to measures that politicians do best—take short-term populist measures to demonstrate that they are pro-people and anti-large corporations without addressing the fundamental questions raised by the Center of Science and Environment (CSE) report. Several commentators have essentially dragged CSE through the mud by parroting the cola company line that they have not protested against water, tea, and other food products.
The core of the issue is not that colas should be banned or that other products contain pesticides. The issue is that there is a high instance of pesticide in commercially available colas, which is nothing but colored sugar water, sold at a high price with abject disregard to the health of the nation. It will be good to find out if these companies will sell the same product in the US or EU where consumer, health, and criminal laws actually work and the consumers themselves will punish the companies. Reportedly, the two companies promised to comply with health norms but have pressurized or coerced or appeased the Health Ministry to stop the recommendation of a panel appointed by a Joint Parliamentary Panel. Why would we not expect these multi-nationals to care about our health?
Surely, the Karnataka and Kerala action is really expected of politicians but is not the right way of handling the issue. Firstly, there needs to be standards set for the level of pesticides, trace minerals, and hard metals in all food products including colas. For a start, we can easily adopt the standards set by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and then customize it for our needs. Secondly, there needs to be a strong criminal law component for non-compliance of these standards that needs to be automatic and easily enforceable. Thirdly, there needs to be a monetary compensation element built into this model where violating companies must be held culpable for the errors and effects of the products. Fourthly, when we argue about food, we need to look at the entire gamut of food ranging from what people and animals eat and drink and not limit it to just one product or variety. Fifthly, it is silly to argue that demanding quality and safety of population will affect flow of investments. While the sledge-hammer approach of Kerala is of a harsh tone, the message is the same. Sixthly, the Health Minister needs to stop worrying about populist and propaganda seeking activities such a taking over prestigious national institutions or ordering inquiring into questionable surveys and work overtime to bring out the standards that would ensure the safety of the nation’s health.