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Why blame the cola giants?

Kirit S Parikh | August 19, 2003

The press release by the Centre for Science and Environment that aerated bottled drinks sold by Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo all contain a deadly cocktail of pesticide residues has created quite a stir.

What the CSE report says is that the levels of pesticides found in bottled drinks is several times higher than what is stipulated in the European norms.

In particular in Coca-Cola, the pesticide content in India is 45 times higher, in Pepsi it is 37 times higher, whereas Coca-Cola, USA and Pepsi, USA meet the European standards for pesticides.

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Some of these pesticides can cause cancer and hence the big stir. Also, one is a bit gleeful that big rich multinationals have been caught on the wrong foot. David has beaten Goliath.

Six months ago, the CSE had exposed the purity of bottled water. One would have thought the bottling companies had woken up and streamlined their quality control. The bottlers say they meet Indian standards.

Indian standards for bottled drinks are non existent, so the bottlers cannot be held guilty by Indian law.

However, since foreign tourists drink both bottled water and soft drinks, the MNCs cannot get away by saying they meet Indian standards. They have to meet standards expected by global customers.

So Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi gave a joint advertisement in response to the CSE press note.

They have claimed that in their test, the treated water meets European standards and that a laboratory in Holland with specialised equipment and highly skilled and experienced personnel, has certified that the water used after treatment meets the highest global standards.

They have challenged the CSE's tests.

To emphasise how difficult these tests are, the bottlers' advertisement tells what detecting a part per billion means. It is like finding one person in India's population of one billion, or measuring one second in 32 years.

This is misleading and that is why it raises doubts in my mind about the other points in the advertisement.

Finding one person in India's billion is a difficult task, but this is a wrong analogy. In one spoonful (6 grams) of water, there are some 200,000 billion billion molecules.

One part per billion would mean that there are 200,000 billion offending molecules in one teaspoonful.

Detecting 200,000 billion bad molecules in a teaspoon does not seem as formidable a task as finding one person in India with a particular trait.

Also, while the water maybe pure, the product may not. For example, the sugar used may have pesticides. The bottlers' claim their products also meet the highest standards, but they don't cite the test results from Holland in support. Are they telling the whole truth?

But, all this is quite irrelevant. The real implication is that the water these firms use before treatment is full of pesticides.

And most Indians drink this water without any treatment. The conventional water treatments in our municipal plants are not likely to remove and bring the pesticide content to safe levels.

I can understand why the CSE has taken up bottled water and bottled drinks. This way one shakes up the establishment.

People with power who can do something about the problem of drinking water can no longer find comfort in their bottles.

We all know that millions of Indians do not have access to safe drinking water. The high rate of infant mortality, under-five child mortality and the high incidence of malnutrition of children are largely due to water-borne diseases.

The economic loss on account of water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, hepatitis, roundworm and guinea worm infections, schistosomiasis, etc. is estimated to be over Rs 35,000 crore (Rs 350 billion) annually. But we have become used to it.

The Elites have not felt the need to do something about providing clean water to all. The CSE report has disturbed their slumber. Widespread protests against the drinks have followed. Even Parliament has stopped serving bottled drinks.

People have started drinking more lassi and nimbu-paani. That may be the preferred alternative but if the water and milk are polluted they may end up consuming more pesticides than they would in bottled drinks. The real issue is water pollution.

Water pollution is a major problem in the country and it is not just from pesticides. The main sources of water pollution are the domestic sewage lines, industrial effluents and agricultural runoff.

The lack of investment in appropriate infrastructure to manage these wastes has been the major reason behind the deterioration of water quality throughout the country.

About 75 per cent of the waste water produced is from the domestic sector, but the sewage treatment facilities are inadequate in most cities and almost absent in rural India.

Only 25 per cent of Class I cities (population more than 100,000), have waste water collection, treatment and disposal facilities.

And less than 10 per cent of the 241 smaller towns have waste water collection systems. Some 20 per cent of all the waste water generated in Class I cities and only 2 per cent of all waste water generated in Class II towns is treated.

Estimates of waste water generated in rural India are not available, but less than 5 per cent of the rural population have access to sanitation services.

About 75 million people in cities and some 550 million people living in rural areas do not have access to toilets of any type.

As a result, huge quantities of organic waste find their way into water bodies, exposing the population to disease.

Several studies have shown that cleaning up domestic and industrial waste water is expensive.

But as the benefits to society are undoubtedly great, huge investments in domestic and industrial waste water treatment systems are now essential and economically justifiable.

Accordingly to estimates, more than Rs 46,000 crore (Rs 460 billion) would be required to construct toilets in the 115 million homes that are presently without toilets.

In addition, sewerage systems to collect waste water and to feed it to the treatment plants would also require considerable finance.

For example, under the Ganga Action Plan, sewerage provision in Mirzapur, a city with a population of one million, costs Rs 10.87 crore (Rs 108.7 million).

Investment will vary with topography, population spread, waste water generation and existing capacities.

What should we do? I suggest that just as we put an earmarked cess on automobile fuels, we put an earmarked cess on all bottled water and bottled drinks.

Rupee one per bottle would collect Rs 700 to 1,000 crore (Rs 7-10 billion) a year and more as demand grows.

Use this money to leverage more funds and provide clean drinking water to all villages and communities who do not have access to clean water.

We could call it Pradhan Mantri's Shuddha Peya Jala Yojana, and hope that it would be as successful as the highways programme.

We should also take all measures to reduce the use of pesticides using integrated pest management approaches, train farmers to minimise wasteful pesticide use and encourage development of pesticides with fewer side effects.

CSE should next carry out fresh tests of all municipal water. That might cause an uprising.

The writer is professor emeritus and former Director of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research.

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