Coke, Pepsi fizzling in India?

Miranda Kennedy Aug 14, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Don’t know if you caught the reference from Janet, but Indra Nooyi was born in India. That background might come in handy in her new job. Indian consumer groups have been challenging both Pepsi and Coca-Cola. They say sodas containing pesticide residues have been making it to market there. In the past couple of weeks several Indian states have banned sales of those sodas in schools and offices. One state banned Coke and Pepsi from manufacturing altogether. Miranda Kennedy’s in New Delhi.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Here in Coke’s biggest plant in India they fill 10 bottles of soda a second to satisfy the country’s fast-growing thirst for soft drinks. Coke and Pepsi own 97% of the soft drink market here. But now, allegations that their drinks are dirty have them on the defensive. So even on a Sunday, Coke plant manager GS Raghu is very eager to show me around. Especially the water treatment plant.

GS RAGHU: This is actually the heart of the plant. See, regardless of where you source your water from, it has to be deemed fit to be used for the preparation of the beverage.

Coke insists that standards are the same in India as they are everywhere else in the world. But tests conducted by the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment tell a different story. They say Coke and Pepsi made in India contain pesticide residues 24 times higher than the legal limit the government has proposed. Sunita Narain, who conducted the study, says the problem is the government hasn’t yet made that limit the law.

SUNITA NARAIN: Essentially companies make use of a weak regulatory framework in our part of the world.

She says in America the water Coke and Pepsi use is clean because municipalities have decontaminated it.

NARAIN: It isn’t as if you don’t have it, you just clean it up. We are saying two things: One, we are saying is that India can’t afford such widescale contamination because we cannot have the technology to clean it up; Two, we are saying is that where there is the technology to clean it up, we must clean it up.

And if anyone in India has the technology, she says, it’s Coke and Pepsi. So they should take up that responsibility. But so far they haven’t. The companies say even if their sodas do contain pesticides, they’re still safe to drink. And it seems that plenty of consumers agree.

At the popular DePaul drink stand in central Delhi, sodas are still the drink of choice to beat the summer humidity. Raj Hooku and his wife, Rashmi, say they might as well drink Pepsi, since they figure they consume pesticides in their milk and vegetables anyway.

RAJ HOOKU: If there’s this kind of stuff in Pepsi, then it’ll probably be in everything else, because same ground water is being used, if the ground water is polluted.

KENNEDY: But in the meantime you’re going to keep drinking Coke and Pepsi.

RAJ HOOKU: Yes, yes. . .

RASHMI HOOKU: We’ve not done too badly over all these years.

RAJ HOOKU: I don’t think it’s an issue.

Coke and Pepsi echo the claim that most food in India is toxic because farmers have used pesticides for decades. That’s not their problem, they say. But it will be, once the government comes up with final standards which will force them to clean up the water. It promises to do that by the end of the year. Then Coke and Pepsi will have no choice but to comply, or leave one of their most promising markets behind.

In New Delhi, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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