No fizz, this

In the controversy over high pesticide residue in cola brand products the defence seems to rest on the fact that hygiene and health standards in India are generally low. The crux lies elsewhere, in the appalling depletion of ground water and the politics of profit

Prasenjit Chowdhury Kolkata

Don’t mistake me for an antediluvian who suggests that cola giants should be hanged simply because the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a leading public interest research and advocacy group in India, found dangerous levels of pesticide residues in their products. India is divided between two classes, those Aquaguard-protected middle-classes who guzzle bottles of aerated drinks and therefore have every right to nitpick on the standard of colas they drink and the underclass who have barely any access to safe drinking water and thus have to make do with a bucketful of muddied water. The great middle class must be protected, hence these tests created a stir. Seldom is there a test for the water consumed by the great underclass or for the less hyped products of daily consumption. 

The first assumption is that of India is a country barely conscious of proper sanitation. That is people are themselves responsible for various kinds of water-borne diseases or diseases that arise out of an acute lack of a sense of hygiene. Could this be a reason, one may wonder, that cola giants in India can get away with a high percentage of pesticide residues here, a thing that they can barely do, say, in Europe? Could the findings of the study conducted by the CSE that tested 57 samples of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo carbonated products from 25 different bottling plants across 12 states and found pesticide residues in all samples, have passed tests in Europe and the US? The pesticide residues were 24 times higher than European Union (EU) standards and those proposed by the Bureau of India Standards (BIS), the government body responsible for standardisation and quality control

Cola majors in India have already put the blame on groundwater contamination and thus tried to wash their hands off the choppy waters. But almost all the nations apply pesticides to ensure maximum yield. Groundwater contamination is worse in Europe (on an average pesticide consumption in Europe at 5,050 gms per hectare is 12 times that of India). In Japan the pesticide consumption is at 12,000 gms per hectare, a whopping 24 times that of India while Holland stands at 10,500 gms per hectare in pesticide consumption (22 times that of India); France at 5,860 gms; South Korea at 6,600 gms. One can go on but internationally too, chemical fertiliser is more in use than it is in India. While the highest consumption has been recorded in Punjab at 200 kg of fertilisers per hectare in Punjab, in Holland it is 495 kg, in Belgium 365 kg, in France 247 kg, in Germany 243 kg, in Japan 290 kg. An average American consumes about 1.5 gms of pesticide per day through the normal food chain. But can the cola majors there afford to get away with as much pesticide residues as they do in India?

As part of the inane logic what is offered is the macrocosm of evil. That natural carcinogens are found everywhere, from your rotund cauliflower head, to the fresh mound of string beans to the glossy bulbs of capsicum, to the carrot which the health-fad happily munches away. If CSE had such objects to test through its Geiger counters, it would have found them more incriminating. What is implied, therefore, is that, the pesticide residues as much as they are found in tasted sample of colas are perfectly okay. If you are condemned to natural poison everyday, what’s the harm of consuming a little more of synthetic poison – goes the logic.
When worldwide a water riot is predicted, total volume of soft drinks sold in India in 2001 was 4,12,000 million litres. Going by an estimate given by Dr Vandana Shiva, each litre of soft drink requires 3-4 litres of water. Therefore the cola companies are using nearly 30 billion litres of water per annum or approximately 80 million litres per day. Coca Cola has 52 manufacturing locations in India, which PepsiCo has 30 plants. On an average each plant is mining 1 million litres of precious and scare groundwater.

This is not the first time that the CSE found similar levels of pesticides in Coca-Cola and Pepsico products. The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) was convened to look into the issue of dangerous levels of pesticides in soft drinks. In February 2004, the JPC confirmed the unsafe levels of pesticides in soft drinks, and recommended that the government set standards for these residues in the products. In October 2005, the standards were finalised by the committee, and in March 2006, the committee met again to reconfirm the standards. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has adopted the same standards as the European Union – which stipulates a single residue limit of 0.0001 parts per million and multiple residue limit of 0.0005 parts per million.

The crux of the whole debate lies elsewhere. Today, 1.3 billion persons in the world don’t have access to safe drinking water and some 2.4 billion (40 per cent of the global population) are denied sanitation. According to Barun Mitra, Director, Liberty Institute, an independent think-tank in Delhi, in India 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. Of the 5 million children under the age of five dying each year due to water-borne diseases, one million are Indian children barely able to cross the age to enjoy a bottle of cola. The per capita availability of water across the planet is going down, because the population is increasing while the total amount of water is static.

There is more. At any one time, more than half the poor of the developing world is ill from causes related to poor hygiene, sanitation and water supply. Diarrhoeal disease alone kills 6,000 children every day. The majority of illnesses in the world are caused by faecal matter. One gram of faecal matter can contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs. In most developing countries only about 1-2 percent of the government spending goes to low cost water and sanitation.

Lack of access to safe water, pumping of sewage and effluents into water sources, unsanitary living conditions in extended slums, open drainage systems outside most city limits, lack of access to toilets resulting in open defecation by an overwhelming majority of the population and human scavenging which has still not been eradicated despite legislation banning it. That a majority of Indians are lax about sanitation has more to do with the failure of government policy.

Never seeking to be an anti-hegemon, my beef with the cola-majors is that the road to
privatisation of water as seen in Plachimada in Palakkad district in Kerala, one of the major bottling plants for Coca Cola, is worrisome because it has drained their aquifers dry. Taking cue of Galbraith one can say that “social unbalance” results from the fact that some of the most important and urgent of the real needs of an affluent society, cannot, in practice, be satisfied by production for profit.