The street fight

Three years have passed since the day we released our first study on pesticides. The government reduced excise duty on soft drinks in this year's budget. The market is looking up. But the standards recommended were blocked by powerful interests in the government. The CSE team presents the inside story

Published: Tuesday 15 August 2006

The street fight

-- Our world changed a little when we published the study on pesticide residues in soft drinks. In the work we do, fights go with the territory. We need to challenge institutions -- government and private -- in the public interest. What we had not anticipated, however, was the sheer power and the virulence of the attack. The fact is that the two companies affected -- Coca-Cola and PepsiCo -- were incidental to our story on pesticide contamination and the need for food standards to regulate safety. The fact that two us multinationals were involved was a mere coincidence. But not for them.

The first attack was on our laboratory -- they questioned the data analysis, our capabilities, our equipment and then as it got nastier, they resorted to personalised attacks on us and our integrity. Their favourite ploy was to dismiss us as a pawn in a conspiracy hatched by Europe (because we get funds from multilateral and bilateral agencies) to destroy the good name of us companies. But this was not all. We heard rumours of phone calls from Colin Powell, then us secretary of state, to the prime minister's office. We heard of Washington DC-based high-priced lawyers (lobbyists) flying down to cajole the powers here. We heard of intense activity in corridors in which we have no place.

We sensed the tables had turned against us. We knew when we had visits from the grey-clad men from the Intelligence Bureau to check on us. We knew when we were asked to submit to the government data on 20 years of accounts, 20 years of our funding data, 20 years of detail on every staff member who has worked with us, along with their addresses. The strategy, we knew, was to trip us -- somehow. The final straw came when the swadeshi -oriented health minister Sushma Swaraj of the National Democratic Alliance government took their side. We say this not because of the study she ordered to check our data, not because of her statement in parliament regarding the study of two scientific institutions and the variation in data gathered by them and us. We say this because she carefully crafted her speech to sneak in the phrase "within safety limit". In other words, the drinks were safe. A clean chit had been given.

We also say this because she drafted the terms of reference of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (jpc) that investigated the matter to turn it into an enquiry against us. The 15-member jpc was to investigate if the "recent findings of the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) regarding pesticide residues in soft drinks are correct or not". In other words, we were in the dock, not the cola companies. The rest is history. The jpc was created to bury us, but it ended up vindicating our study. It endorsed our position that the country needed health-based standards for food and water security (see 'Democracy must be worked at', Down To Earth, February 29, 2004).

What after that?
We Indians are a cynical lot. Perhaps we have reason to be. We believe that little will be done, nothing will really improve and that the rich and powerful will get away with murder (in a manner of speaking). It is not all that wrong as well. Take the cola-pesticide wars. The story may have inspired a Bollywood movie -- Corporate -- but it has done little else. Even as the jpc was deliberating on its report, the two cola giants launched perhaps the biggest ad blitz in the country. Top stars, from Aamir Khan to Shahrukh Khan, were hired to reassure us that the drinks were safe. They mocked our study. They derided our message of safety. They danced and sang to seduce us to go back to colas. But that is their job. They are paid actors. The problem was that the regulator -- the government -- abdicated its role.

Three years have passed since the day we released our study. The market for colas, we are told, has recovered from the pesticide-controversy blip. The government of the day is favourably inclined towards promoting this habit. In this year's budget, an excise duty cut has made the cola giants more profitable. The market is looking up. We have no complaints.

But where we have a bone to pick is that even as the drinks are back in our homes, nothing has been done to implement the recommendations of the jpc. The standards that needed to be set to regulate their safety have been lost in committees or blocked by powerful interests in the government. The cola-pesticide issue has become one more action-not-taken story.

What now?
But battles, as we said, go with our territory. We are dogs with a bone -- we won't give up. The reason is not egoism or arrogance. The reason is simple: we believe in this nation's democracy. For the past three years, we have worked within the system to discuss and formulate safety standards for these products. We have worked with the process. We have found it works. We found in this process that the integrity of top scientists could not be compromised. But we also found that the process could easily be manipulated by the bureaucracy.

This is why we are taking this issue back to you. We are releasing the study -- Coke-Pepsi-Pesticide ii -- so that you who are wooed by the companies can exercise your choice.

Our reason is simple: if soft drinks contain a cocktail of pesticides above stipulated standard, they are unsafe. The companies say there are no stipulated standards. The reason is simple: they don't allow standards to be formulated. The companies say milk and vegetables have more pesticides than colas. But milk and vegetables also have nutrition. They give us something in this poison-nutrition trade-off. We get nothing with colas. Just pesticides. Harmful and deadly.

As we write this, we don't know how we will be attacked this time. We are sure, given past experience, that it will be vituperative and powerful.

We don't know if we will survive. But we know that the issues we are concerned with will gain strength. They are too important to be knocked around by a few companies, even if they are the world's most powerful ones. These issues concern our bodies. Our health.

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