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Pass the Cola, please!

Defending Cola drinks these days is to invite the charge that one is a paid writer of these multinationals. I wish I was. But I am risking this charge just to pen down my thoughts on what I think is a useless controversy highlighted by an ignorant press. There are many things that are wrong with India?s environment. Depletion of groundwater in many areas, periodic floods in others, dirt in our cities, dwindling wildlife ? India has it all. But what is it that excites environmentalists, media and governments alike? Cola.

india Updated: Aug 22, 2006 14:44 IST

Defending Cola drinks these days is to invite the charge that one is a paid writer of these multinationals. I wish I was. But I am risking this charge just to pen down my thoughts on what I think is a useless controversy highlighted by an ignorant press.

There are many things that are wrong with India’s environment. Depletion of groundwater in many areas, periodic floods in others, dirt in our cities, dwindling wildlife – India has it all. But what is it that excites environmentalists, media and governments alike? A bottle of Cola.

One cannot help but notice the lopsided priorities of everyone concerned. Rather than take up problems of the poor or those that affect large sections of the population, we get fits to know that a bottle of cola, consumed largely by the rich in our country, contains pesticide content of 0.14 parts per billion or some similar ridiculously low figure.

The story so far: there is a non government organisation that likes to think it is concerned about the environment and about the poor, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). It repeats its charges made three years ago, that Cola drinks have very low levels of pesticides. The media dutifully reports the old story and gets its director on talk shows. But nobody asks what her credentials are: is she a scientist? A social worker? A do-gooder? A lawyer?

More important, where does she get the money from? After all, doing surveys of this kind and holding press conferences does require funding of some sort.

In the absence of these questions and answers, everybody assumes that she is right. So we have some foolish students from third grade institutes breaking some bottles for the benefit of press photographers. Everything is reported faithfully by an “objective” press. The government steps in to ban Cola drinks in some states, perhaps to show that it also can do these things.

The farce will be played out every three years, it seems. Because no one can set standards on these things – after all if Cola should have only 0.14 parts of pesticides per billion, should milk and bread have more? The fact, unfortunately, is that pesticides are all around us. They are sprayed to save us and our crops from those nasty insects. Thanks to insecticides we do not get malaria every monsoons. Thanks to these chemicals we have food security in our country.

A by-product of this security has been that pesticides have entered our food chain. That doesn’t seem to have made any difference to our health. We are living well, eating well, and are happier. We are having more children, reflected in the population figures. True, if consumed in large quantities the pesticides would trouble us, but only farmers from Andhra Pradesh and Maharshtra seem to be consuming them in large quantities. However, instead of addressing their concerns, we must of course bother about the minute quantities of pesticides in Cola drinks.

Maybe we should ask the right questions now: who is this CSE and why does it rake up the same issue after three years? Is it for publicity? Or has it done anything for the environment of the country, apart from publishing some books and reports? Or is it merely out to get publicity because foreign donors are always impressed with how much new coverage an organisation can get?

It appears that the last conjecture is probably correct. Otherwise, CSE would have something to show, for example the environmental work of Anna Hazare or Rajendra Singh, some wildlife work like Bittu Sahgal or even some dam activism like Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar. In the absence of work on the ground, this environmentalism is suspect. Pass the Cola, please.

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