Democracy must be worked at
The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) was set up to investigate the issue of pesticides in cold drinks, and everyone told us that we had reached a dead end. Parliamentarians aren't interested, we were told. The issues were too technical, too contentious. Cynics added that with elections round the corner, the committee's outcome was predisposed towards big money and powerful corporations. Overall, the consensus was that we had already lost.
This JPC was the fourth to be constituted in post-independent India. It was the first-ever on public health. The earlier three had deliberated on scams - from the Bofors scandal to the two stock market scams of the 1990s. This one was charged with determining if the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) study on pesticide residues in soft drinks was correct or not, and to suggest criteria for evolving standards for soft drinks, fruit juices and other beverages, where water was the main constituent.
So the committee had to determine the veracity of our findings. But to do this, it had to understand both the science of the analytical study and the science of determining safety in food and drink. How much was safe? And, what was legally safe? In other words, the JPC also had to understand regulations on food safety, standard-setting and pesticide use. Crucially, members had to come to grips with the institutional framework for regulation and enforcement. This would require them to explore global best practices - what different countries do - so that a roadmap for reform could be suggested. It was a tough assignment for anyone, let alone busy parliamentarians in a time of election fever.
Our first interaction with the committee was stereotypical. Corporate disinformation had reached them: we were pushing European Union (EU) norms, which would destroy Indian industry...it was a plot to weaken our trade...destroy our competitive advantage. In addition, we were seeking publicity sans science. We were not credible.
But their reaction changed as we stated our positions. What stunned us was their willingness to be engaged in knowledge. There were hard issues at hand; they asked tough questions. But they also took their responsibility seriously. They were prepared to be informed, without arrogance or fixated minds, like that of "experts".
For instance, we were asked: why did we want such stringent standards for pesticide residues in water? Industry had said that we were asking for the "surrogate zero", an impossible standard. Would this not damage Indian industry and its competitiveness?
A fair question. Our reply was: we want tough standards for pesticide residues in water. Because the world over, regulators agree that pesticides serve no purpose in water. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that while pesticide residues in food could be acceptable (up to a limit), the same in water could at best be tolerated, but not accepted. Pesticides are "economic toxins" - they must be used to grow food; and so a certain amount must be ingested in food. But pesticides in water are contaminants. Furthermore, technology to clean residues exists; the cost isn't prohibitive. Most importantly, we argued, India cannot afford contamination, for the clean-up cost was too high. Therefore putting in place precautionary and preventive principles were vital to future water security.
Certainly we were not asking for the same stringent standards (EU norms) for all industries. One regulation for the beverage industry as a whole, we added, was ridiculous. It would merely broaden the scope of the norm, weakening it. We wanted stringent regulations. But regulations for distinctly different categories of products - with different ingredients, technologies and scale of operations - would have to differ. In other words, you could not club soft drinks with fruit juices, or malt beverages.
We asked JPC to consider the nutrition and poison trade-off in pesticide regulations. If toxins had to be ingested, we had to ensure nutrition in return. Therefore, regulations for pesticides in juices, milk, fruits or vegetables - essential and nutritive - had to be different from regulations for non-nutritive and non-essential products.
It became evident we were not asking for EU norms for all food. Again, that was senseless. We had to do what the EU or the US does: set our own pesticide residue standards keeping in mind our diet and trade interests. But our current standards were weak, and mindless about human health. The entire system of mandating and enforcing food safety standards had to be urgently overhauled. Trade and farmers' interests were equally at risk in the current system, we explained.
The parliamentarians listened. Their report sets out a firm and progressive reform agenda for food safety. It also indicts two of the world's largest corporations for the way they operate in India. This will be an important precedent to hold corporations accountable, in a world speedily globalising. It should teach mandarins of corporate social responsibility that even the most powerful industry prefers to hide behind weak domestic policy and regulations.
The report also puts the onus on our government to decide on policy in the interests of all. Most importantly, the report says that a government cannot abdicate its role as the protector of the health of its people. The JPC's indictment of the current system is almost absolute, as is its demand for change.
We have learnt. For democracy to succeed, it must be worked at.
- Sunita Narain