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Storm in a cola bottle

Per capita consumption of soft drinks in India is under 10 bottles ? among the lowest in the world, while 60 per cent people don?t have access to clean drinking water, writes Barun Mitra.

india Updated: Aug 22, 2006 15:26 IST

It is said that when history repeats itself, it usually ends in a farce. Tragically, the farce is behind the façade in the present rerun of the debate over pesticide in your soft drink bottle. Ironically, there is an apparent, and rare, consensus among politicians and activists on this issue. There is uproar in Parliament, seven state governments have initiated some sort of restrictions on sale of cola drinks, and activists have reasons to be satisfied for galvanising the decision makers into action.

It would seem the fate of the present and future generations in India depend on the soft drinks sold in India. While the size of the bottled water and soft drinks industry in India is about $ 2 billion, and 80 per cent of the market is shared by Coca-Cola and Pepsi, per capita soft drink consumption is less than ten bottles — among the lowest in the world. In Thailand, it is nearly 30 bottles per capita, and in developed countries the figure is over 300 bottles per person per year.

As India approaches its 59th year of Independence, the reality is that nearly 60 per cent of households do not have access to water in their dwellings. As many as 30 per cent of households may not even have safe drinking water sources near their homes. One estimate says that about 25 million Indians rely on rivers and ponds. And it has been repeated many times that of the 5 million children under the age of five who die each year due to water-borne diseases, one million are Indian children who never have an opportunity to grow beyond their short life, to enjoy a bottle of cola.

Indeed, it would be worth asking in the absence of bottled water and soft drinks, how many more Indians would periodically suffer disease like jaundice, or perhaps even die in tragic yet avoidable circumstances. The demand for safer water is also reflected in the rapid expansion of the water purifier manufacturing in the country. Economic savings and benefits of health safety will be incalculable if all Indians had access to safe drinking water. But the message from the Indian political and social leaders seems to be clear: they will do everything possible to make the bottled drinks safe. After all when people don’t have safe drinking water, at least they deserve to have access to a safe bottle of cola!

In the last few years, BSP — Bijli, Sadak, Paani — has acquired special significance in Indian electoral politics. It would be interesting to see if in the next round of elections, our political masters will be campaigning to replace the paani with bottled soft drinks.

Far from being concerned about the safety of the citizens, political leaders find it easy to target soft drink manufacturers, particularly when they are MNCs. This is the lowest cost strategy for politicians who express their concern, and deflect attention from the real problems facing the people. Which is why apart from extracting greater column inches for their efforts, the political entrepreneurs are aware that at election time it is the original BSP that is likely to seal their fate, rather than future of colas. But elections are once in a while; in the meantime, to stay in the news, potshots at soft drinks is fair game.

Deviousness of politicians is nothing new. So the new knights on the white horse are the self-claimed civil society activists. The NGO that devised this campaign must be complimented for its strategic vision. Its prime concern is an assault on pesticides. But pest control is a necessary requirement for farmers, and millions of consumers who fight to keep the bugs at bay even in their homes. It is not unreasonable to believe that neither the farmer nor the consumer will part with their hard earned money unless they believed in the necessity of pest control.

Will seeking better standards help the poor, or empower the people through economic development to enable them afford better levels of protection? For a country whose per capita income is one-tenth that of the developed countries, seeking developed country standards will only increase vulnerability by diverting focus and resources. The present debate over cola has contributed to that diversion. Otherwise, how can we explain the deafening silence over access to safe drinking water, while roaring rage over quality of cola?

The second point about food standards is that it is dosage that makes a poison. Common salt is the most critical ingredient for all kitchens. Yet, the ordinary salt can kill if consumed in large enough quantity. The traces of pesticide allegedly found in cola are being measured in the range of parts per billion, an amount so small that most people will have trouble conceiving it. If that is to be basis for safety standards, no food item in India, or elsewhere, are likely to meet the requirement.

If we are concerned about pesticide residues, consider the tens of thousands of naturally occurring pesticides and carcinogens that occur in fruits and vegetable because every living organism needs a defence mechanism to survive, and keep pests at bay. This is the lesson of evolution itself. Consider a fruit tray of fresh fruits — apples, grapes, mangoes, pears and pineapple. This would contain known carcinogens such as acetaldehyde, benzaldehyde, caffeic acid, d-limonene, estragole, ethyl acrylate, and quercetin glycosides. 

“No human diet can be free of naturally occurring chemicals that are rodent carcinogens. Of the chemicals that people eat, 99.99 per cent are natural,” says Bruce Ames, and his colleagues at University of California, Berkeley. Prof Ames is a renowned cancer researcher, and coauthored a famous paper in 1990 in the journal Science. “We conclude that natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. We also conclude that at the low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.”

An average American consumes about 1.5 gms of pesticide per day through the normal food chain. Yet, he is healthier, living longer, with life expectancy nearing 80 years, a full 15 years longer than an average Indian.

It is crucial to realise that for the traces of pesticides in the soft drink to cause any harm, one may have to drink a few hundred bottles a day. The other point to remember is that if one is to drink 50 to 100 glasses of uncontaminated water at once that could prove to be fatal.

A rational discourse is necessary to understand the relationship between economic development and scientific advances, so that these can be harnessed to give citizens a safer and better quality of life. Political mileage from MNC-bashing, or scaremongering by activists interested in building their own empires, are unlikely to contribute much towards a safer world.

(The writer is Director, Liberty Institute, an independent thinktank in Delhi)