A new advertisement featuring three of Bollywood's leading actors was perfectly timed to take the fizz out of the most awaited report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on pesticide residues in and safety standards for soft drinks, fruit juices and other beverages. No surprise, therefore, that much like the escape of incarcerated carbon dioxide from the cola bottle, the historic findings of the report were well out of public memory within weeks of its release!
Tabled simultaneously in both houses of the Parliament on February 4, 2004, the JPC report ended-up putting an official stamp on the Centre of Science and Environments claims that soft drinks contain pesticide residues. The JPC was shocked that the burgeoning soft drinks industry is unregulated in the country. That it is exempted from industrial license under the Industries Act of 1951 and gets the convenience of one-time operating licenses under the Food Products Order (FPO) 1955, explains the rest. All that the industry is required to do is obtain a no objection certificate from state governments and the State Pollution Control Boards for its operations. The Acts have apparently outlived their relevance in this case.
The absence of adequate regulatory controls being fairly glaring, the JPC had little option but to hold the Ministry of Health responsible for ensuring that misinformation about the safety of colas is not spread. The `clean chit issued by the Health Minister Sushma Swaraj prior to the setting up of the JPC is in stark and reckless contrast to this message of caution. The Minister's green light clearly undermined the JPC's examination of all the relevant facts to establish a comprehensive public health agenda; the cola companies seized the opportunity to proclaim their products' safety in the interim between Swaraj's hasty confidence and the JPC's more considered findings.
Thus, by the time of the report, the damage had already been done; in the six months spent by the JPC in filing its report, no less than 3000 million additional bottles of soft drinks were sent down the throats of an unsuspecting public.
Putting the bottle first
Observing this gross negligence, the JPC recommended that MRL be fixed for all the pesticides registered in the country. Shockingly, the MRL for 71 of the 181 registered pesticides has only been fixed under PFA Act, 1954.
In its work, the JPC had been particularly concerned about the quality of water, which constitutes 86% to 92% of any soft drink. Surprisingly, neither is water defined properly nor any standards laid down under PFA, FPO or the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). Given that groundwater is the source of water at the existing cola factories across the country, the quality of this input assumes greater significance. In addition to quality concerns, the Committee was also interested in examining the volume and costs of groundwater use by cola companies.
Do the companies pay for water that is pumped to fill some 7000 million bottles of soft drinks every year? Though the companies have taken mandatory permission to pump groundwater at their factory premises across the country, water withdrawal has been free everywhere. The shocked and dismayed JPC questioned the Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, about the ground reality. `So far as we know, the Government is charging no money for this purpose, came the rather naive reply. Citing the legal position that ownership of groundwater is bundled along with the land under which such water is found, the Ministry of Water Resources expressed its inability to levy any charges for the use of groundwater.
In light of the Kerala High Court judgement in the case of Plachimada plant of Coca Cola, the JPC questioned the stand taken by the Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources. The court has opined in no uncertain terms that the use of groundwater is free only in case the same is used for domestic or agricultural use by the owner. In case of its commercial use, the court observed, the Panchayat and the State are bound to protect groundwater from exploitation. The Committee took strong exception to the ineffective functioning of the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), constituted on the directions of the Supreme Court, to regulate groundwater exploitation.
In many ways, the JPC report reads like a charge sheet on the functioning of the concerned ministries of the government. However, the report also makes significant recommendations to improve the situation. From recommending setting of stringent standards for pesticide residues in soft drinks to regulating groundwater extraction for commercial purposes; from recommending the inclusion of water within the definition of food to developing coordinated action by research institutions in the public domain, the JPC has unleashed an agenda that promises to provide safe food and water to citizens.
Will these recommendations will be translated into concrete actions? With about eight different ministries dealing with a plethora of laws and regulations on food, the enforcement of laws related to this issue is at best cosmetic and loose. The committee's report urges that several ways to ensure greater public health be explored; the nation now awaits the political will to accept and follow these recommendations.