Indian Schoolgirl Urges People to Drink Natural Beverages
Indian Schoolgirl Urges People to Drink Natural Beverages
By: Indranil Mukherjee
Date: August 14, 2003
Source: AFP/Getty Images
About the Photographer: This photograph was taken by Indian photographer Indranil Mukherjee on August 14, 2003, in the Indian city of Bangalore.
In February 2003, the Indian nongovernmental organization Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released data that shocked India. "Your bottled water," they announced, "is contaminated by pesticides." (Pesticides are chemicals used to kill insects, often on crops; they can accumulate in fatty tissues and cause developmental problems in children and other health effects.) The CSE analyzed seventeen brands of packaged drinking water sold in India and found that they contained a "deadly cocktail" of pesticides. The four chemicals most often found by the CSE analysis were lindane, DDT, malathion, and chlorpyrifos. On average, the bottled water analyzed contained 36.4 times the allowed levels of total pesticide. (The "allowed level" referenced by the CSE was the European Economic Commission Directive 80/778/EEC maximum residue limit for total pesticides, 0.0005 milligrams per liter.) One brand, Aquaplus, had 104 times the allowed level.
In August 2003, the CSE released a second report showing that high pesticide residues had also been found in soft drinks as well as bottled water. Twelve soft-drink brands sold in and around the city of Delhi were analyzed. Coca-Cola bottled in India was found to have forty-five times the allowed limit on total pesticides; Pepsi bottled in India, thirty-seven times. Coca-Cola and Pepsi bottled in the United States, in contrast, were found to have no detectable level of pesticides at all.
Anger was widespread in India, although the country has one of the world's lowest rates of soft-drink consumption—about eight beverages per person per year, versus about eight hundred per person per year in the United States.
In India, CSE's tests showed that the pesticides were coming from the groundwater being used to manufacture the beverages. In the case of bottled water, the contaminated groundwater is simply pumped, bottled, and sold: in the case of soft drinks, the groundwater is carbonated (made fizzy by the addition of carbon dioxide) and mixed with syrup supplied by a centralized manufacturer before being bottled. The ultimate source of the pesticides in the groundwater was agriculture.
A Joint Parliamentary Committee (official body convened by the Indian government) confirmed the CSE's findings on February 5, 2004. It pointed out that unlike other aspects of the food industry, the soft drink industry in India was ungoverned by government-mandated purity standards. PepsiCo Inc. argued that it could not be held responsible for product purity at bottling plants owned by franchisees, that is, by local companies that contracted with PepsiCo for the right to bottle its sodas. The Joint Parliamentary Committee, however, rejected this argument as invalid, stating that although franchisees were responsible for product purity, so was the franchiser—in this case, PepsiCo. In December 2004 the Supreme Court of India ruled that Pepsi and Coca-Cola would have to display warning labels stating that their products might contain pesticides.
INDIAN SCHOOLGIRL URGES PEOPLE TO DRINK NATURAL BEVERAGES.
See primary source image.
The appearance of pesticides in Indian bottled water and soda is entangled with several larger problems. First, many pesticides that have long been banned in the United States and Europe were only banned relatively recently in India, or are still not banned, or may be legally banned but are used anyway. Greenpeace India has demanded that the Indian government ban all pesticides from Indian agriculture, beginning with those that are already banned in other countries.
Second, multinational corporations are widely perceived in India as valuing the lives of Indians and people living in other developing countries less than those of people living in the developed world, especially the United States and Europe. Many Indian writers and protestors explicitly linked the new pesticide scandal to the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, where chemicals escaping from a chemical plant owned by Union Carbide, a U.S. company, killed at least 18,000 people. Compensation to Bhopal survivors was only about $500 per person, far less than typically would have been awarded to American victims of a similar accident. (As of 2004, much of this money, paid by Union Carbide to the Indian Government, had still not reached the victims.)
The Coca-Cola Company is widely opposed in India not only for the high levels of pesticides in its products but for lowering groundwater levels in the vicinity of its bottling plants in the province of Kerala. Coca-Cola has stated that it is harvesting rainwater to alleviate this problem: the director of the CSE, Sunita Narain, said in early 2006 that Coke was, in fact, harvesting less than 10 percent of the water it was using, and that its claims of significant water harvesting were therefore erroneous.
Third, Indian agriculture has been shifting toward cash-crop monocultures of introduced hybrid and genetically modified crop varieties supported by cashintensive inputs of fertilizer and pesticide. Pesticide use has increased, some of it ending up in groundwater. Pressed by drought and debt, thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide in recent years—many by symbolically drinking raw pesticides, a painful death.
According to CSE, as of January 2006, there had still been no change in the levels of pesticides in drinks in India. Over a dozen U.S. universities had by that date terminated their contracts with Coca-Cola in protest of the continued draw-down of water tables by Coca-Cola bottling plants in India and the presence of pesticides in soda.
"Community Commemorates Thousand Day Anniversary of Vigil Against Coca-Cola in Kerala." India Resource Center, January 13, 2005. 〈http://www.indiaresource.org/press/2005/plachimadablockjan.html〉 (accessed Feb. 16, 2006).
Ashish, Kumar Sen. The Tribune India, online edition, May 1, 2004. "Coke's water-harvesting claims 'fraudulent.'" 〈http://www.tribuneindia.com/2006/20060111/edit.htm#7〉 (accessed Feb. 16, 2006).
Mather, H. B., Sapna Johnson, and Avinash Kumar. "Analysis of Pesticide Residues in Soft Drinks." Centre for Science and Environment, August 5, 2003. 〈http://www.cseindia.org/html/cola-indepth/softdrinks_report.pdf〉 (accessed Feb. 16, 2006).