Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Less fizz
Cola giants must be more transparent

Posted online: Wednesday, December 08, 2004 at 0000 hours IST

At one level, the Supreme Court’s refusal to set aside the Rajasthan High Court’s order to display pesticide residue warnings on Coke and Pepsi bottles comes as a shot in the arm for the ordinary consumer. At another it smacks of the same kind of arbitrariness that has dogged the two soft drinks’ majors ever since the pesticides controversy broke out. The companies on their part have been spending their resources trying to convince people that they’ve been adhering to whatever standards exist in Indian law. What they need to address is that this earns them little brownie points. Consumers have a right to be informed of the contents of what they are drinking. True, the problem is fundamentally about contamination of groundwater and the lack of citizen access to information, enforcement and alternatives. Put another way, it is the state and civic agencies that should have been in the dock. But thanks to ham-handed handling of the entire controversy, the transnational cola companies did not win much sympathy.
Which is why perceptions have remained unaltered by the all-party MPs’ panel on new standards and the promulgation of these by the government. Consider the news in recent months: ban on Pepsi and Coke products in the Parliament canteen, the trashing of Coke by villagers and the media in Kerala’s Plachimada controversy, the Rajasthan HC order, the riots and police lathicharge at the Coke bottling plant at UP’s Mehdiganj, now the SC order...there’s a huge gulf between what Coke and Pepsi protest they are and deserve and what much of the public believes they are and deserve.
These facts need to be addressed, independent of one’s views of what the judges have said and pronounced. Indeed, if one is to accept the HC justification that citizens have a “fundamental right to full disclosure” and need “entire information for exercising informed choice,” why did they limit it to Coke and Pepsi? Why not compel fruit juice bottlers to stick the same label? Why not apply the same standard to the government’s own working?
The fact is, socking it to Coke and Pepsi earns almost no public censure and, often, approbation from many. But that still does not take away from the fact that the consumer has a right to know and companies have a duty to inform.

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