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Anti-Soft Drinks lobby assails Health Minister

Written by: Staff

New Delhi, Aug 23: An activist lobby today assailed Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss and the expert committee of the Ministry for having virtually acquitted soft drinks majors Coca-Cola and Pepsi of the charge that they market and sell products harmful to public health.

Addressing a press conference here, the group, comprising member of parliament M P Veerendra Kumar, advocate Prashant Bhushan, scientist Dunu Roy, public health expert Mira Shiva, Gandhian Banwarilal Sharma and environmentalist Vandana Shiva, flayed the Minister saying he appeared intent on defending corporate health and interest rather than public health.

Describing the report of the NGO the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) on soft drinks as ''inconclusive'', the Minister had informed Parliament yesterday that the government did not want to act in haste while fixing standards for the Rs 50,000 crore soft drinks industry.

The expert committee set up by the Health Ministry under the chairmanship of Dr D Kanungo, Additional Director General (MS) Directorate General of Health Services, too had questioned the CSE's findings on pesticide content in soft drinks.

''His comments have outraged us...How can there be a 'safe standard' for the rape and murder of our health and environment,'' Shiva said, pointing out that the Ministry had not just challenged the CSE's findings, but also that of the Joint Parliamentary Committee.

On the Minister's remark that the presence of heptachlor was ''unlikely'' in soft drink samples tested by the CSE because it was banned in 1996, she pointed out that its presence was reported by the JPC in 2003-04 as well.

The group argued that the soft drinks not just carried a number of harmful chemical additives, not revealed to the consuming public on the pretext of trade secret, but also that their bottling plants drained underground acquifers and poisoned the food chain by discharging sludge laced with heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and chromium into the environment.

''They take our water, pollute it and the soil, sell the poisonous product and take away our money,'' Prof Sharma of the 'Azadi Bachao Andolan' said, calling the struggle against Coca-Cola and Pepsi a ''second freedom struggle''.

''Coke and Pepsi are the horns of the corporate bull that is enslaving us; and we have to grab the bull by the horns,'' he said when asked why other companies selling harmful food products were not being ''targeted''.

The group, however, challenged the argument that the soft drinks alone should not be blamed since other food items including milk and fruits too contained pesticides residue. ''Milk and fruit drinks have a nutrient value while the soft drinks have none,'' Mr Veerendra Kumar, who has been at the forefront of the anti-Coke struggle, said.

''Why doesn't the government ban these products till it completes investigation on whether the soft drinks are safe or not,'' he asked.

The soft drinks have been banned in Kerala and partially in four states. According to Prof Sharma, more than 10,000 schools and colleges across the country have declared themselves as ''Coke-free zones''.

''We will continue educating people about the harmful effects of the soft drinks and about the damage their plants are causing to the environment,'' he said. Mr Sharma said he was mobilising support for a week-long, country-wide blockade of trucks carrying soft drink bottles in November.


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