When the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) was set up on August 22, 2003 to investigate the issue of pesticides in cold drinks, 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 2004 general elections were becoming a distinct possiblity at that time — 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.
me 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.