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'We need a regulatory spine'

"We expected Govt to respond to the issue of lack of regulations for soft drinks industry with urgency," writes Sunita Narain, head of CSE.
PTI | By Sunita Narain, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON AUG 23, 2003 11:48 PM IST

The debate is about public health. India needs mechanisms to manage industrial growth and its toxic fallouts.

On a TV talk show, a Congress MP demanded that action should be taken against the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) for its study on pesticide residues in soft drinks. Her contention was that as the study was proven wrong by the government, firm steps must be taken to ensure that the organisation is made to pay for its actions. When her colleagues on the panel explained that the issue was not just of two laboratory reports but about regulation, or the lack of it on this ‘food’ industry and gave credit to CSE for bringing up the issue, the legislator back-tracked. She then demanded that action should be taken by the government, against the government!

What are the issues? Where does the problem lie? Let me try and explain how we see things.

CSE analysed samples of cold drinks, following its study on bottled water a few months ago, and found pesticide residues of roughly the same level in these drinks, as in bottled water. It also did not find any pesticide residues in the samples of cold drinks it tested from the US. The study was done in our laboratory, which is not accredited by government, but is equipped with equipment and personnel, capable of handling sophisticated tests, as previous record of its studies has shown. Most importantly for us, we did the study without malice or malafide.

Then the government has commissioned its own studies, from reputable and accredited laboratories, which have found that the pesticides in the samples were lower than what our study had shown. But it accepts that there are pesticides and in 75 per cent of the cases, higher than the European Union (and now government’s own notified bottled water norms). They found less, we found more. To explain the difference between the laboratory reports will need further scrutiny of the government report — which incidentally is still not available to anyone — and to see its methodology and most importantly, sample collection procedures.

The government also says that because these residues are within the existing (non-existent) norms of government regulations, the bottles are safe to drink. What this means is that because we have weak norms, the pesticide residues found by the government’s own laboratories are “legal” and therefore, safe.

But that is exactly our point. We had expected the government to respond to, with urgency and seriousness to the issue of the lack of regulations for this industry. This is what needs fixing fast.

Let us be clear that the existing regulations for this industry are weak. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) had, at least, some kind of mandatory standards and certification for the bottled water industry. In comparison, nothing exists for this ‘food’ industry. It is regulated under a plethora of agencies and standards but most are meaningless or plain ridiculous. It gets licensed under the Food Products Order and further regulated under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954. The BIS standards, set for it roughly 10 years ago, are voluntary. Worse, none of the pieces of legislation even mention the fact that raw water — over 90 per cent of the finished product — needs scrutiny. The limit for deadly arsenic and lead in soft drinks has been set 50 times higher than the allowed standards for bottled water or drinking water. Therefore, the issue is not just ‘Coke-Pepsi’ but an issue of weak government regulations on food. This is an issue about designing a policy framework and enforcement mechanisms for public health imperatives.

Therefore, there is much more to this issue, than what meets our eye currently. We have said that we are concerned about Coke and Pepsi but we are most concerned about the reasons why we found pesticides in their bottles. The reason is that groundwater, indeed most water sources, are increasingly contaminated, dirty and deadly. 

The issue, for us, is equally about water quality for all. Dirty water kills more babies than any other substance still. But even 55 years after Independence, we have no legally enforceable drinking water standards in the country. This is truly amazing. So, even though water is considered a fundamental right, there are no legal standards for what would define clean and potable water. Therefore, municipalities supply us what they can, when they can. This has to change.

Then, equally, this issue is about the causes of contamination — pesticides. We found pesticides in bottled water or soft drinks because there is indiscriminate use of these chemicals in our environment. Nobody cares. Nobody really monitors what chemicals are being registered, how they are being used or misused. We need to design a policy for safe and wise issue of pesticides in our environment. We have to invest in a new generation of pesticides, which are less toxic and hazardous. We need to do this because quite simply India is too poor a country to clean up after poisoning or pay for the high health costs. We need a precautionary policy that promotes seriously stringent regulations for use and in the final products we consume.

Therefore, most of all, this issue is about public health. It is often argued that pesticide residues, if found in tiny quantities, are not injurious to health. That is certainly not the case. Pesticides are deadly in small quantities as they accumulate over time in our bodies, suppress the immune system and make the body susceptible to diseases like cancer. Soft standards for pesticide residues in the food and water we consume, are deadly standards. This cannot be acceptable.

In all this, let us not forget the Congress legislator, who was so quick to demand action against CSE on television. “What is the need of this NGO when there is the government and industry to take action”, she had noted with some anger.

But is this not the key issue. After all, we need functioning mechanisms to manage industrial growth and its toxic fallouts. It is clear that increased private sector participation will need more government, not less. More importantly, we will need more democracy, not less. But government will have to be reengineered so that its regulation and monitoring role can be strengthened enormously. More importantly, we will need countervailing power to the growing influence of business. This requires democratic rights and institutions that can defend or advocate these rights — from courts to civil society institutions.

We have to build a regulatory spine. In the interests of us all. This is most all, what is at stake here.

(The writer heads CSE)

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