Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Let Them Drink Cola!

There is much outcry against bottled soft drinks in India, though the percapita consumption of soft drinks in India is much lower than that of developed nations. Multinational corporations are an easy target for politicians, media and activists, but it is forgotten than most people in India don't even have access to safe water. My article titled "Let Them Drink Cola!" was published in TCS Daily on 2nd September 2003.

Over 200 years ago, a French queen advised her citizens to eat cake when they were struggling to find bread. The present outcry in India against bottled soft drinks rings an uncannily similar bell. India is not, of course, an absolute monarchy, but it is the largest democracy in the world today. However, the frantic response of our political leaders, the judiciary, the media and self-proclaimed activists suggests that the mindset of the Indian elite is much closer to the French queen than the population they are supposed to represent.

The fact is, 56 years after we gained our independence, 60 percent of Indian households do not have access to water in their homes and 44 percent have no electricity connections. Over 30 percent of households do not even have a safe water source near their homes. Indeed, five million homes -- or over 25 million people -- rely on rivers and ponds for their daily water.

According to the World Health Organisation, five million children die before the age of 5 due to water-borne diseases and lack of basic hygiene and sanitation. One would have thought that access to clean and safe water is one issue that would galvanise our leaders. It is not as if we do not know the scale of the problem before us. The Minister for Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution, Sharad Yadav, at the height of the controversy over the quality of packaged water, told Business India magazine, "We cannot forget that more than 80% of our population is made to drink contaminated water that would be declared unfit even for animals in the West."

Every week, there are media reports of lack of basic water in different parts of the country.

* In July, a report noted that potable water in Andhra Pradesh is barely potable in many parts of the state. E. Coli was the most common bacteria found, indicating presence of human and animal excreta. While the WHO standard for presence of E.Coli in drinking water is nil, in at least one sample it was found to be 460 coliform per 100 ml of drinking water.

* In June, a study in Delhi indicated that that drinking water samples taken in the city contained faecal coliform and faecal strepticoccai.

* In Kolkata, a survey found 47 percent of water samples used for cooking and drinking was contaminated by coliform and faecal coliform. Another recent survey of water supplied to hospitals in that city indicated high levels of pollutants.

Per capita consumption of soft drinks in India is a mere six bottles in a year. In a country where per capita income is about 400 USD, and where over a quarter of the people live at an abject level of less than one USD a day, this is not surprising. Even in countries like Thailand, in our own neighbourhood, per capita consumption is about 80 bottles; in the United States, the corresponding figure is over 800 bottles. As for packaged water, less than 1 percent of Indians can afford to drink it regularly.

Yet the problem of safe drinking water rarely catches the fancy of the policymakers, political leaders and the media. If it did, then we would have no one else to blame but ourselves for the sufferings of our people. But of course, it is easy to blame someone else, and even more so if it happens to be a multinational corporation (MNC).

Way back in 1949 (two years after independence), an Environmental Hygiene Committee formed by the Government of India stated that the objective of public water supply should be "to provide water that is absolutely free from the risks of transmitting diseases; is pleasing to the senses, and is suitable for culinary and laundry purpose."

Why have we failed to provide access to safe water to our people? We have consistently sought to put the blame on our large population, their incessant demands, the shortage of resources, scarcity of water, and everything else. However, we have not done the one thing that would have made water available: create a "free market" for water. Instead, we have continued to proclaim water as a public good and have relied on public sector monopolies at local and state levels to provide potable water. And we have immunised the agencies against accountability by failing to define what constitutes potable water.

Coca-Cola is the largest brand in the world, recently valued at over 70 billion USD. Pepsi comes in at 12 billion USD. But no matter how big they may be, these giants can't force even one consumer to buy their products. There is no better incentive than the need to keep their paying customers satisfied. This is quite unlike the public utilities providing water to the population. Yet MNCs are soft targets; anyone looking for their two minutes of glory can hit them.

The recent incident has also brought to the surface the latent anti-business, anti-MNC prejudices that are prevalent among a large section of the elite and the chattering classes. Our apparent rage seems to be borne out of envy; after all, Coke and Pepsi have become household names by attracting loyal customers and supplying them with a value they cherish.

Among the blitzkrieg of actions proposed, there is a demand that our water and soft drinks must meet EU standards. We have indeed moved a long way in 56 years, back when we had sought our own tryst with destiny. More interestingly, we seem to move from having no standards for potable water to the toughest standards, without giving a thought to the relevance and associated costs. The EU not only has high standards, but it can, more pertinently, afford those standards, because it is the club of richest nations in the world.

The demand for mandatory standards, equivalent to EU or other international norms, is another attempt to mask reality. Standards are not created in a vacuum. It is no coincidence that rich countries with much higher income levels are also environmentally cleaner and safer, although they are much more industrialised, use much more energy, food, water, agro-chemicals including pesticides. The reason is that higher income levels are sustained in a free competitive economic environment. Increased consumption levels provide the incentive to improve efficiency. And this contributes to a cleaner and safer environment.

The answer to the present problem is not to blindly impose higher standards on products with little local relevance but to create an open economic environment that will enable our people to leap-frog their way out of poverty. Then we will be able to afford the higher quality of life, including potable water, which is taken for granted in all rich countries.

Marie Antoinette literally lost her head for suggesting that her people eat cake. Our collective fate may not be very much different if we continue to make a brouhaha over soft drinks and packaged water when our people have little access to safe drinking water.