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WRONG PEST

When denial works, nothing else is needed. The cola companies, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, have confidently denied the possibility of impermissible levels of pesticides in their products. But this is the second time that the Centre for Science and Environment has declared its findings on the contents of soft drinks produced by these companies. Moreover, the CSE has claimed, after a more wide-ranging test than last time — 57 samples of 11 brands taken from 12 states as against samples taken in and around Delhi in 2003, that the level of pesticides has gone up since then. In the three intervening years, politicians have been preoccupied with wrangling and pondering, while the standards of safety for colas, determined by the Bureau of Indian Standards — only after the first exposé — have not been notified. According to the CSE, pesticide levels in some samples are 30 times higher than the standards provided by the bureau.

But the standards remain unpublished. That is just one manifestation of the topsy-turvy priorities of India’s politicians. The BIS was directed to evolve the standards when the Bharatiya Janata Party was leading the coalition at the Centre. This March, when the BIS had the standards ready, the United Progressive Alliance reportedly said the government would promulgate its own standards. Politicizing every issue is an irresistible habit, even if the subject is a possibly serious threat to the health of the people. The CSE findings are posing questions of cancer-causing pesticides in enormously popular soft drinks, produced by wealthy multinational companies. The parliament, however, has piously passed the food safety and standards bill, which applies to all food. It is conveniently enigmatic, with overlapping categories and definitions, which may help violators rather than deter them. Some questions are unavoidable here. Why should a food standards bill be vague' Perhaps the answer is to be found in a search for beneficiaries of such vagueness. Second, does this vagueness have anything to do with the fact that the government remains inert about findings that have shown unacceptable levels of toxins in water, cereals and vegetables in many areas' What the cola companies are possibly doing is inexcusable and dangerously unethical. But the government’s role is equally, if not more, questionable.

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