In the context of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) study on pesticides in bottled water, Sharad Yadav, Union minister of consumer affairs, spoke to Down To Earth about issues of regulation in public health and consumer rights, and other things. Excerpts:
On the CSE study on pesticides in bottled water
The fact that nobody has confronted the study speaks for itself. It is a case of a non-governmental organisation doing all that is possible within its limitations to highlight an issue of public concern. We see the study as a warning from friendly quarters and accept it as such. There is no point in being arrogant. It is for the government to act now, to take this to its logical conclusion and ensure that the interests of the consumers are protected.
On the panels that set standards in the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS)
The cse study has highlighted the fact that the panels that set standards have too much representation from industry. This is a major influence on the standards. It is not just the case of bottled water. Industry representatives influence the standards set for other commodities also.
On what can be expected from the government to set this right
I have set the ball in motion to correct this state of affairs. We intend to have at least one-third of the panelists from credible non-governmental organisations. The new standing committees of bis would have more independent experts than interest groups. There would also be an effort to represent and involve consumer rights groups. We are working to create transparency in setting standards. We are also evolving an effective process of publicising the proposed standards for public comment. But you need to understand that government systems cannot be changed overnight. You need a steady effort to effect changes. And this has to be done without excluding anybody.
On problems in getting the standards setting system to work effectively
It is a government system and it involves the ministries of health, commerce and agriculture, apart from our ministry and bis. There is already a system in place, but it is clear that bis needs to assert itself in pursuance of its duties. Other ministries have a role, but if it's the bis that is accountable for setting appropriate standards, then it should also be the nodal agency. It should dominate and control the process, which hasn't been happening. You can expect it to happen in the near future. You can expect, in the future, increased vigilance and better testing.
On bottled water companies getting samples tested at private laboratories
Yes, that issue has also come to our attention. bis has laboratories, but the testing equipment needs to be upgraded. We are committed to purchasing the required laboratory equipment. We are assessing the costs of the options available. The government needs to go beyond labelling pesticides as hazardous and conduct detailed studies on their health effects. And why just bottled water? What about groundwater? People across the country are drinking polluted water.
On people losing trust in the bottled water industry
There hasn't been all that much public faith to lose in the first place. Industries are not set up for the welfare of the consumer. They are set up to earn money, and the consumers are very well aware of that.
On the industry's role in safeguarding public health in times of globalisation
Industry is unlikely to look after the interests of public health. It is up to the regulators to safeguard public interests. Industry does not run for the public good. It works for profit. Otherwise, there would be no need for regulatory agencies. As for globalisation, I fear that with the coming of large multinationals, smaller, local manufacturers will become traders. Globalisation is the West's agenda. Developing countries can't expect to gain from it. If anything, they are likely to lose.
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