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Coke-and-dagger

india Updated: Aug 22, 2006 15:18 IST
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There is a 300 ml half-empty bottle of Coca-Cola on my table as I write this. If I’m a pessimist — and if I was terrified by the latest Centre of Science and Environment (CSE) findings about pesticide residue in my Coke — I would have seen a 300 ml half-full bottle. But even after the extremely articulate Sunita Narain of CSE warned me that I am quaffing 25 times the permissible amount of DDT, lindane, malathion, chlorpyritos and other toxins that sound like WMD ingredients, I continue to drink the stuff. Clearly, her statement about pesticide residue in colas — “grave public health scandal” — hasn’t given me ulcers yet.

And that’s because as I cast shifty glances at the (by now, 3/4th-empty, 1/4th full) Coke bottle, I think of the AquaGuard ‘Reverse Osmosis’ gadget that’s installed in my kitchen in moderately affluent east Delhi. Like Narain, the nice Eureka Forbes man was concerned enough about my well-being to point out that the heavy metal in the drinking water my building society gets is terribly harmful. That was reason enough for me to not think twice about installing a machine that would ‘purify’ the water that, if left to itself, would have led to my slow, painful death.

I don’t quite know how many households in east Delhi, Delhi or India have protected themselves from ‘unhealthy’ drinking water. But I will be extremely surprised if  Eureka Forbes purifiers are as ubiquitous as, say, Coke bottles in the country. By that reckoning one supposes that a whole lot of people — the majority of whom are not consumers of Coca-Cola or Pepsi or any other product of the two American hegemons — consume water that is full of poison. I’d say that qualifies as a “grave public health scandal”.

But then, is it really?

Bruce Ames, Professor of Biochemistry, University of California, invented a procedure in the Seventies that allows scientists to test chemicals to see whether they harm humans or not. I know he’s an American, which automatically makes him a CIA agent in the eyes of Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. But in a path-breaking study Pollution, Pesticides & Cancer: Misconceptions (http://www.heartland.org/pdf/23122a.pdf), Ames and fellow researcher Lois Gold found that natural carcinogens are found everywhere — in fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. Human exposure to natural chemicals, therefore, is much higher and more frequent than to synthetic chemicals. And here’s the show-stopper: “Exposure to synthetic pollutants are tiny and rarely seem plausible as a causal factor.” Which essentially means if the CSE whitecoats swung their pesticide-detecting Geiger counters towards that rotund cauliflower head, or that wonderfully purple brinjal, or that fresh mound of string beans in your local sabzi mandi, they will detect nasty pesticide residues that will make colas seem like mother’s milk.

But then Sunita Narain telling us — with the likes of anti-hegemon Comrade Achuthanandan listening in from the sides — that drinking a product that has its headquarters in Atlanta, USA, and is a byword for ‘MNC imperialism’ is a dangerous activity is not quite the same thing as Sunita Narain telling the farmer in Bhatinda that his cabbage patch is a killing field. The laughter — never mind the outrage — that will emanate across Punjab, and then the rest of the country, will drown out words with Latin names that Narain utters with genuine concern. The CSE’s panga is apparently with chemical companies. If cola giants are caught in the crossfire, tough.

But as I order my second bottle of Coke, I am perturbed about something else associated with the aerated drinks industry. No, it’s not about Americans from Atlanta, all vaguely looking like former US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage with red-and-white caps, descending on India and taking over. It’s about the real problem of depleted groundwater for which manufacturers like Coca-Cola, because of the very nature of their product, are seen as water-sucking vampires.

In April 2002, it was because of people protesting against the scarcity of drinking water in water-scarce Plachimada, Kerala, while the Coca-Cola bottling factory managed to obtain and utilise 350,000 litres of ground water a day that led to the high court shutting down the plant. Comrade Achuthanandan had been there too, spearheading that campaign, a precious moment in his continuing fight against the ‘imperialism of multinationals’ (not my words, but that of LDF MP Sebastian Paul on CNN-IBN). Popular anger against the cola giant was vented in April 2003 in Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu, and in Kala Dera near Jaipur in August 2004 for the same reason.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi do not break any laws when they gather (or, in the words of protesting locals, ‘steal’) groundwater for their products. Neither do the millions of farmers in Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu growing high-yielding crops that require vast amounts of water. In both cases, the cost of groundwater is practically nil — the costs being in extracting and transporting the water. In other words, in India where groundwater is a scarcity in many areas, there is no policy for water withdrawal. A model bill was circulated in the Seventies by the Central Groundwater Board that planned a centralised system of regulation involving licences and permits. But there remains no balance of private rights and regulatory mechanisms that can provide a basic measure of water security for all.

Luckily, cola bottling plants serve as the perfect ‘evil zamindar’ to India’s groundwater depletion/scarcity problems. Is it easier to tell a rich farmer to pay for his water or to say, as Nandlal ‘Master’ Prasad, leader of the anti-Coke protests in Mehdiganj in Varanasi district, does, that “drinking Coca-Cola is like drinking farmer’s blood”?

It’s at times like these that I get all misty-eyed and think of George Fernandes, Industry Minister in Morarji Desai’s government. He might not have thrown Union Carbide out — the MNC that constructed a spanking new pesticide plant in Bhopal in 1973 — but Firebrand George pushed me into becoming a 16-year-long Campa-Cola junkie in the summer of 1977.

While nothing beats an ice-cold Coca-Cola (sorry, Pepsi-log), I was happy during my formative years in the knowledge that Campa-Cola was bereft of any pesticide residue and was made without denying anyone a drop of water. Oh, for those happy Pure Drinks days when there were no MNCs to blame things for, and no Sunita Narains to make us suddenly look at veggies with extreme suspicion.

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