Isn't this a case of deliberate manipulation? A seemingly clear instance of contaminated soft drinks has conveniently been converted into a statistical jigsaw puzzle. Taking the fizz out from the controversy, the government's probe has reduced the issue of public health into a fiercely contested debate on whether or not the tests conform to the EU norms on safety. Diverting peoples' attention from the core issue, the government has instead put the bottle before the health of its people.
A cartoon in a national daily aptly sums up Health Minister Sushma Swaraj's reported `clean chit' to the Cola companies. A fuming cricketer is shown sharing his anguish: `I've lost a few Cola endorsement contracts - looks like politicians are doing a better job for the companies'. By the time Ms. Swaraj could contend that her statement on the government's probe was misquoted, the cat was already out of the bag. The term `clean chit' has helped the industry refurbish the people's lost faith in soft drinks. If this wasn't enough, the setting up of a 15-member Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to suggest `suitable safety standards' for soft drinks has further diluted the impact of the Centre of Science and Environment's shocking revelation on pesticide contents in soft drinks.
The opposition and the critics have been suspicious of government's stand on the issue and smell a deeper conspiracy behind it. By sidestepping the issue of consumer safety, the government has favoured the growing market for soft drinks in the country, currently estimated at a whopping US$ 1.2 billion. Has the governance system been misappropriated by multinational companies? Why else did the government take an unreasonably long time in making public the methodology and the results of the tests conducted at CFTRI? Curiously, the government held back the data but made public its intention of giving a clean chit to the Cola companies despite the fact that the tested soft drinks were found to contain pesticides - less than what the CSE had reported but clearly above the prescribed EU limits.
In doing so, the government has helped scuttle the debate over the core issue of consumer safety and health. Shockingly, the debate has now shifted to the validity of the CSE test vis-à-vis the CFTRI results and the EU benchmark on safety norms. The apparent similarity of opinion between the government and the multinationals has confused the consumer a great deal, to the favour of the Colas only.
The fact that the government took exceptionally long to make public the results of its investigations on the quality of soft drinks uncovers the value its attaches to the issue of the right to information. Holding back information on critical issues of human health is seen by many as gross violations of fundamental rights. In a sense, the government has given the Cola companies the right to poison the hapless consumers, albeit slowly.
By providing unprecedented immunity to private players, the government has unfolded the sheer lack of accountability within the system. In the absence of suitable legislation to reprimand errant companies the scale of the human tragedy could indeed be unparalleled should widespread poisoning occur through contaminated soft drinks! With rural marketing of soft drinks and other packaged foodstuffs on the rise, the threat from uncontrolled contamination may indeed be grave.
However, the manner in which the government has handled the case thus far indicates that it has been oblivious to the scale of the potential threat. The argument that indeed pollution levels in groundwater are alarmingly high and even without drinking Cola most of us would probably imbibe higher levels of assorted toxins is no justification for the contaminated drinks. Elsewhere in Europe and the US the same soft drinks conform to stringent standards despite the groundwater being heavily polluted.
To expect that the Cola controversy will force the government to introspect its inherent weaknesses will be far from reality. However, to bring about any perceptible change in the system the burgeoning middle class will have to wake up from its political and economic slumber. Can the collective conscience of the middle class be shaken to respond to the market onslaught on our lives and culture?