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Last Updated: Friday, 22 August, 2003, 08:13 GMT 09:13 UK
Profile: Environmentalist group in cola storm

By Jyotsna Singh
BBC correspondent in Delhi

Environment and consumer activists in India have voiced strong support for the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the group that came out with a report earlier in August that Pepsi and Cola drinks in India contained high levels of pesticides.

The Indian Government now says tests it has authorised show that the drinks are safe and the CSE's findings were wrong.

Man drinking Coca-Cola in Delhi
Many are clearly not worried by the CSE's report
The CSE has been operating in India for more than 20 years.

It is a non-government organisation that describes its goal as the promotion of environmentally sound and equitable development strategies.

The CSE has run two successful campaigns in India in recent years.

Its efforts in the 1990s forced the government in the capital, Delhi, to adopt environmentally-friendly fuel compressed natural gas (CNG) in the city buses to reduce pollution.

This year, a study conducted by the group revealed that most of the brands of bottled water available in the country contain pesticides significantly higher than permissible limits.

The CSE report said that, in some cases, the bottled water contained banned chemicals.

It said risks to health included serious physical impairment ranging from damage to the central nervous system to lung cancer.

The government responded by saying it was in the process of tightening safety standards for both soft drinks and bottled water and new guidelines for the purpose would be issued by January next year.

'More credible'

But now, in the controversy over Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the CSE and the Indian Government find themselves at odds.

Delhi bus
A CSE campaign forced Delhi buses to reduce pollution

Health Minister Sushma Swaraj, however, did not appear to want to blow up the differences between the two sides.

While she said the CSE report was exaggerated, she thanked it for "highlighting the problem that needed attention".

And she told parliament that with "increasing use of pesticides, the groundwater and other water sources are likely to be more contaminated and therefore stricter norms need to be in place".

Other environmental groups dispute the government view that the CSE findings were exaggerated.

"The CSE is definitely more credible than the government run-labs. This country is in a mess as far as quality standards are concerned," Devinder Sharma, an expert on food security told the BBC.

"The latest controversy has thrown up one very important issue about the gaps in corporate responsibility."

Further support for CSE came from Vipin Matthew Benjamin, a lawyer with the pressure group, Environmental Justice Initiative.

"The CSE has one of the most well-equipped labs to carry out such tests," he said.

Campaigners also argue that the big issue in this controversy is not the accuracy of the CSE report into Pepsi and Coca Cola.

They say the dispute shows that the institutional mechanisms to test quality standards in India are conspicuous by their absence.

Hence pressure groups such as CSE have to play a crucial role in compelling the policy makers to think about such issues.

"The problem of food adulteration should be pointed out by the ministry of health. But in India it is left to the environment groups alone," says Ravi Aggarwal of Delhi-based environmental group Toxic Links.

"I think the environmental as well as consumer groups must come together to push for the larger systemic issues and ensure that food safety mechanism is in place."

Environmental groups complain of a general laxity with regard to food quality standards in India. They says a vigorous campaign is needed to sensitise the government over the issue.

Do the findings of the Indian Government over pesticides in colas reassure you?
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