World class products

This last fortnight, after two disparate experiences, I came to realise there is not much difference between colas and cars. Let me explain how.

A year ago, we released a study on the cocktail of pesticides we found in all soft drinks brands. We argued the pesticides were in the soft drinks because there were no regulations for these drinks in the country. Nobody had defined what the 'safe' limit for pesticide residues were - ergo, what could be legally allowed in these drinks - and so nobody checked for the toxins we found. The study created an absurd history of sorts: it brought Coca-Cola and PepsiCo together on a common platform (the global myth is they don't work well together). In harmonious trill, the soft drink giants defended their products, saying these met "the best global standards". It has also led us, for the past year, to take up the issue of regulation.

Over a year now, we have been engaged in a committee, set up by the Bureau of Indian Standards, to formulate standards for these products. The process, which includes the two soft drink and industry associations, has been contentious and downright nasty. To cut a long story short, in the latest round of sparring to finalise the draft standards, the companies argued - as they consistently have been - that there was no need to regulate their products so far as pesticide residues were concerned. They were confident they were meeting all standards - real or imaginary - and that we should "trust" them.

The other sticky point was the nature of the standard itself. We insisted these products must meet global standards. But companies and their spokespersons in the industrial associations cried foul: tough standards, they said, will destroy Indian companies. This poor country is full of poorer companies. So any talk of protecting public health through stringent quality standards related to toxins, like pesticides or heavy metals, even micro-bacterial contamination, is a conspiracy to destroy their competitive advantage.

We countered. If there was no investment in cleaning up our food products, then nobody had the right to contaminate them. If we are too poor to regulate pesticides in our food, we cannot be rich enough to allow the use of these modern pesticides in our country. Poverty is no excuse for murder. The issue, we countered, is to develop a strong regulatory system that protects public health and can be used to defend the quality of Indian food and standard-setting processes worldwide.

Secondly, and more simply, this standard merely concerned two of the world's largest companies; there were virtually no small soft drink manufacturers that had not been bought over, or gone out of business. I asked: How can you giants hide behind the spectre of small manufacturers to plead your case?

Let's now turn to cars. This week, we also reviewed the introduction of the lambda measure - an oxygen sensor that ensures the highest degree of effectiveness of the catalytic converter and the lowest exhaust emissions in a vehicle. The government of India has introduced new norms to check emissions from on-road vehicles, effective from October 2004. In this notification the government, weak as it always is before industry lobbies, does not make lambda mandatory. It is up to city governments to implement.

We want lambda introduced in Delhi. But, as usual, industry is belligerently opposing it. Why? General Motors sums up their sulk: "We have not given any specification of lambda value for our vehicles as this was not a requirement so far". Lambda is not part of the type approval certificate, the global giant says, and so we cannot give you the lambda measure we follow. But, says this giant, we confirm our products are built to high standards. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The Coke-Pepsi line of defence: we do not measure pesticides because you never asked us to, but we know we are clean. Trust us.

But trust we cannot. For the Automotive Research Association of India - the premier facility based in Pune - has found to its horror that, of the 23 brand new cars it has tested, as many as 9 did not pass the lambda test. In other words these cars, once sold, would run on roads with a faulty air-fuel mixture, leading to a sub-optimally performing catalytic converter. Let's cut the techno-jargon: they will pollute, period, and nobody will be the wiser for it.

The question that emerges from the connection I made is: why is industry against regulation? It cannot be done in India, they say. Why? The cars sold in India are branded and advertised as global cars, made by global companies with global quality standards. The lambda measure was introduced way back in 1993 in Europe, even earlier in the us; it has been introduced in Hong Kong and in the Philippines. In all these countries, if the vehicle that comes for a pollution check does not meet the lambda range, it fails the test.

So, why not in India? The automobile industry has no answer. Other than: we are the best and if the lambda fails, it is not our fault. Just like a Coke-Pepsi favourite: pesticides in the bottle are not our fault. What can we do if there are pesticide residues in the groundwater we use? Poor us.

Let us be clear. In this globalisation of unequals, the poverty of countries is becoming the biggest excuse for the mother of all frauds. We will continue to be sold "world class products" by "world class" companies thriving in poorly regulated environments. In other words, we will deserve the industry we get because we deserve the government we get. Poorer us.

- Sunita Narain