The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Indian system thrives on confusion, luxuriating in the miasma that rises around every issue of public interest. It was possible to think that the cola conundrum could be solved easily enough, it was just a question of testing the liquids for the level of pesticide in them. Evidently, that was to dispose of the problem too fast and too neatly. In any case, the results that have emerged from the states are mixed, and one way to continue the probe would be to find out what factors are causing the difference. It may be something as simple as a lack of standardization in the equipment or the methods of testing. The Central government’s tests show in many cases higher levels of pesticide than the standard specified for bottled water but lower than the levels reported by the Centre for Science and Environment. To declare the colas “safe” on this still uncertain basis was to invite trouble, and the opposition promptly seized its cue. The result is a joint parliamentary committee investigation, the rationale for which is shrouded in mystery. Given the history of JPC probes, some expectations are likely to be fulfilled — that the report will be delayed indefinitely for example, and that the government will be able to shrug off charges of bias. It is not clear whose purpose this will serve; perhaps neither the government nor the opposition is particularly anxious to resolve the matter.

On top of this, no one seems to be quite sure about the standards that are meant to be applied. There seems to be some debate about European Union norms and American norms. As long as there is scope for difference on this basic premise, safety norms can be used in the service of other interests, political, economic, ideological or patriotic. None of this is of any use to the consumer, it merely obfuscates the original question. The infusing of other interests undermines the point of the scientific testing. A JPC is therefore doubly harmful, it cannot improve upon the actual testing, and its very presence is an indication of possible other interests. At most, a government or its committee can decide on a consistent standard and demand, with expert advice, the best scientific and technological investigation. Even the standards imported from other parts of the world need to be looked into: the EU demands of its imported foods higher standards than its own farmers can always achieve. What has emerged out of this confusion, though, is a greater awareness on the part of the consumer which alone can pressurize the government into imposing standards of safety on the water and raw material of manufactured foods, as is done in the West.

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