Creating people's geographies
Salil Tripathi International Herald Tribune
August 24, 2006
What’s remarkable about the controversy surrounding Coca-Cola and Pepsi in India – where an environmental group has alleged that the soft drinks contain unacceptably high levels of pesticides and other “toxic substances” – is that both companies, which vigorously deny the charges, claim to be stunned by being targeted.
A plucky pressure group battling a giant multinational accused of selling substandard products in a developing country is hardly a new phenomenon. And this is not the first time either company has faced rough waters in India.
Public-relations experts now say the two companies failed to realize the significance of such a campaign. The companies said their products meet global standards, but the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi is known for producing well-researched reports.
Coca-Cola’s defense is complicated by two of its recent problems: In 1999, Coca-Cola was temporarily banned in Belgium and France, after the two governments remained unsatisfied by the company’s explanation about the presence of benzene in the products. Similarly, in 2004 it had to withdraw its bottled water, Dasani, from Britain, after its purification process resulted in levels of bromate beyond British standards, although there were no immediate safety fears.
The Center for Science and Environment, or CSE, has a broader agenda of campaigning against pollution and pesticides. Building on a study it did three years ago, the CSE has gone several steps further this time, analyzing bottles from different plants in different parts of India, subjecting them to apparently identical tests, and concluding that the drinks are too dangerous to consume.
(To be sure, while the chemicals identified are indeed toxic, a consumer would have to drink a huge amount of Coke or Pepsi daily before she faced any risk to her health, even at current levels, and even thirsty teenagers don’t drink more than a liter a day. And it has not been established that the chemicals are introduced as a results of the manufacturing process).
Politicians have raced to denounce the companies; several states have now banned the drinks from government departments, offices and schools. There have been loud and spirited debates on Indian television, and a poll on a local channel on Wednesday showed that nearly 75 percent of respondents felt the government was favouring the multinationals. An Indian court has asked the companies to reveal the ingredients of the drinks.
Coca-Cola, surely, should know better. In 1977, India’s first non-Congress Party government appointed as minister for industries a firebrand trade-union leader, who declared war on multinationals. Using a law already on the books but never seriously used, he asked Coca-Cola and IBM to dilute their equity in their Indian operations to 40 percent, or leave. Coca- Cola was also asked to reveal its secret formula. Both companies chose to leave.
Then, in a bizarre indication of its priorities, the government spent millions of rupees developing a home-grown cola to replace Coke. That state-led effort, called 77, failed miserably; the Parle group, a private Indian company, swept the market with a drink called Thums Up.
Undeterred by Coca-Cola’s withdrawal, Pepsi ventured into India in the mid-1980s. It agreed to fairly onerous conditions imposed by the government, including forming a joint venture with a state-run company, promising to export five times what it would import, and investing in India’s agricultural sector.
In 1993, Coca-Cola returned after India liberalized its economy, permitting foreign ownership in most businesses. It soon acquired Thums Up, and today commands a large share of the India’s $1.5 billion soft-drink market. Once Pepsi’s share is added, the dominance of U.S. companies is almost total.
Some Indian politicians don’t like that, seeing the return of the East India Company in every foreign investment proposal that they consider to be frivolous. During the 1990s, the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party campaigned with the slogan, “We want computer chips, not potato chips,” a dig at Pepsi, which had introduced several snack-food brands in India.
Given this backdrop, if Coca-Cola and Pepsi thought they were selling only soft drinks in India, they were mistaken: Their products carry myriad political and cultural meanings. To many Indians, they personify aspirations to an American lifestyle, but to many others, they represent the overbearing reach of U.S. foreign policy. Which is why, even as their sales figures increase around the world, they remain targets of antiglobalization activists, as is now happening in India.
What the CSE campaign is dishonestly silent about, however, is the fact that the Indian food chain is intertwined with pesticides, which can be found in everything from cereals, fruit, vegetables and crops to water and milk. Indian farmers liberally sprinkle pesticides on everything they grow.
Other Indian antiglobalization activists, like Vandana Shiva, have gone further than the CSE. Shiva takes issue with the four-decade-old “green revolution” itself, for introducing chemicals, mechanization, fertilizers, pesticides and other technological solutions to multiply food production in India. While the green revolution enabled India to grow significantly more food, Shiva contends that it has hurt Indian farming – and even impoverished farmers – by reducing crop diversity.
The CSE’s deeper agenda, to force the government to standardize and regulate pesticide usage, is laudable. But its campaign against the colas is disingenuous. To insinuate that soft drinks, which account for a tiny portion of India’s economy, are a primary cause of spreading pesticides in the Indian food chain, without looking at the far greater contamination in other food products, is plain wrong. It might even suggest that campaigners are only concerned about the health of the middle class, ignoring the millions who earn less than a dollar a day, and make their own dal and rice.
In fact, some experts argue that soft drinks are, on balance, safer than tap water in India, which is home to many water-borne diseases. A survey by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research found that 60 percent of Indian food samples had high pesticide content and 14 percent had unacceptably high levels.
The real culprit, then, is the Indian state, which has dragged its feet in publishing food safety standards that can apply to soft drinks. Instead of focusing on that, politicians are busy scoring points by banning the drinks. That’s hypocritical and silly, and does nothing to make food safe in India.
Salil Tripathi is a London-based writer, who covered business and economic issues in India and Singapore for over a decade.