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WHEN the two cola giants, Pepsi and Coke, addressed a joint press conference, few observers realised this was history in the making. Bitter rivals for long, the two corporations have sought to undercut the other at the slightest pretext. So when Coke stole a march over its rival in China, as part of Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy, Pepsi aggressively moved to become the first in the erstwhile USSR.

Rivalry apart, the two are and remain quintessential US based global corporations whose drive for profits and market share brooks little interference. Cases where they have flouted local laws and regulations, eliminated (only metaphorically) competitors and bought out local power wielders to ensure a smooth run are legion. The sceptical would do well to watch the classic documentary ‘Burp: Pepsi vs Coke – The Ice Cold Wars’ on the murky record of the two corporations.

It is thus more than a little flattering that the activities of a relatively small NGO (small by their not Indian standards) has created such panic in the cola majors. The report released by the Centre for Science and Environment is simple and in itself carries few surprises. In short, it charged that the aerated drinks sold by the two contained an unacceptably high proportion of pesticide residue, far in excess of levels deemed safe in the European Union.

Why this should cause no surprise is that a few months earlier the same NGO had levied a similar charge against the bottled water industry. Incidentally, both Pepsi and Coke are big in this business. Since the colas are nothing else but fizzy, sweetened water with a few additional chemicals, and they had failed to successfully rebut the earlier charges, unless they could demonstrate that the water they used in their colas had undergone additional purification, they stood ipso facto guilty.

Why the release of the CSE findings by itself should have impelled the two rivals to come together to face a common detractor is better understood by both the image of integrity the CSE enjoys and its undoubtedly brilliant use of the media. The NGO enjoys a well-deserved reputation for foregrounding issues of pollution in Delhi and its carcinogenic implications (with more than a little help from the Supreme Court). It finally succeeded in forcing the administration to institute stricter emission standards for vehicles, improve fuel quality and finally insist that all public vehicles in the city run on CNG. Expectedly this took time and the campaign faced intense opposition from multiple quarters, not just automobile majors and vehicle owners but also research centres. But the CSE refused to cave in and finally all of us are the gainers.

None of this was lost on the Cola majors. Additionally, both Pepsi and Coke have been facing other charges – for cornering disproportionate supplies of scarce ground water, leading to shortages for farmers as also domestic consumers; for being lax in treating effluents released as by-products; and worse, for instance in Kerela, even distributing the sludge containing pesticide as fertiliser. In a product industry where image is all, they evidently could not afford another public relations disaster. Of course, it helped that our Parliamentarians, usually impervious to public interest, uncharacteristically reacted and banned the two soft drinks from being served in the Parliament house cafeteria.

Sceptics might argue that this is a frivolous campaign; in a country where the overwhelming majority enjoys no access to safe drinking water, highlighting the ‘unsafe’ nature of colas is both elitist and diversionary. They are wrong. Pepsi and Coke are illustrative targets. What is really at stake are the standards established for consumables, the laxity marking the functioning of our certification agencies, and the ease with which our often non-existent or ambiguous rules can be suborned by powerful interests.

Of course, there is also a swadeshi vs videshi issue. It is not that other ‘national’ cola/soft drink producers are any less at fault. But if a civic campaign can successfully challenge and tame a powerful multinational, deploying a discursive strategy across multiple terrains and institutions – clearly they are doing something right. It is not incidental that the local head of Pepsi who had earlier asserted that their product was the same irrespective of where it was sold subsequently shifted gear to complain about the use of EU standards to judge them in India. That this claim was upheld by a subsequent official report stating that the colas meet WHO standards for potable water does little to alleviate public unease. This is a battle we must all watch with interest, preferably join.

Harsh Sethi