By TJS George
So the truth is out. All those who have been attacking colas as bad must admit that they were wrong. It has now been conclusively proved that colas are most useful as pesticides.
The proof comes, not from interested lobbies, but from consumers. Farmers of Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh were the first to report their findings. Since then farmers from Maharashtra, Chhatisgarh and northern Karnataka have also been heard from. They all say unanimously that Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola and Thums Up are extremely effective in killing the pests that afflict their cotton and chilli crops.
A tell-tale quote from a Guntur farmer is worth re-quoting. "We found the three colas had uniform effect on the pests. The pests became numb after tasting the concotion and fell to the ground." The discovery thrilled the farmers because now they could make one acre of crop pest-free at a cost of Rs. 270. Branded pesticides would cost four times as much
The boon is by no means confined to debt-plagued farmers. Some city-dwellers have discovered that colas are quite effective as lavatory cleaners. Some others had used colas instead of distilled water in motor car batteries. The batteries functioned far more efficiently.
The message is clear. Colas are a useful ingredient of modern civilisation and ought to be used widely by both urban and rural populations. The problem is when marketing geniuses insist that people can also drink colas. As every child and her Barbie doll knows, the story of colas is the story of marketing. The geniuses who worked on image-building in the early years were so successful that Coca Cola became a national symbol of America and a synonym for democracy.
The strategic brilliance that achieved such a miraculous triumph is brought out in a story about two corporate chiefs from Coca Cola who visited the Pope in Rome. They asked him to change the line in the Lord's Prayer from "Give us this day our daily bread" to "Give us this day our daily coke." They offered a substantial personal contribution to the Holy Father and a separate more substantial contribution to the establishment he headed. The Pope was not amused and asked the visitors to leave. As the Papal guards showed them the door, the Coke representatives were heard asking each other: "I wonder how much the bread people paid him."
In a world where all values are determined by marketing, the cola companies could just as well have dreamed up fabulous marketing strategies to popularise their products as pesticides and cleaning agents. The profits would have still poured in. But that would not have acquired for their companies the glamour and national flag-carrier status they now enjoy.
So we are left to enjoy what the cotton pests enjoy at their peril. Our kids, including middleaged ones, carry on with their coke even after official sources certified the presence of harmful residual pesticides in colas. A BBC study team had taken sludge from a Coca Cola factory in the now famous town of Plachimada and found the toxic chemical cadmium in excess of permissible limits.
But the glamour of colas continues. The greatest asset of the marketeers is human nature. Man is the only animal that is attracted to what is bad for him. The tiger won't touch vegetables, the elephant won't touch meat, but man will smoke and chew gutka even when he knows that it will kill him.
And, even when he knows the truth, he will go on drinking pesticides.
BBC were the first to expose the Cola poisoning in Kerala.
The plant denies that the fertiliser is harmful to health
Dangerous levels of the known carcinogen cadmium have been found in the sludge produced from the plant in the southern state of Kerala.
The chemicals were traced in an investigation by BBC Radio 4's Face The Facts programme and prompted scientists to call for the practice to be halted immediately.
However, Vice-President of Coca-Cola in India, Sunil Gupta, denied the fertiliser posed any risk.
"We have scientific evidence to prove it is absolutely safe and we have never had any complaints," Mr Gupta said.
Face The Facts presenter John Waite visited the plant following complaints from villagers that water supplies were drying up because of the massive quantities of water required by Coca-Cola.
Villagers, politicians, environmentalists and scientists have accused the firm of robbing the community of the area's most precious resource.
They say the area's farming industry has been devastated and jobs, as well as the health of local people, have been put at risk.
As part of the probe, Face The Facts sent sludge samples to the UK for examination at the University of Exeter.
Tests revealed the material was useless as a fertiliser and contained a number of toxic metals, including cadmium and lead.
The lab's senior scientist, David Santillo, said: "What is particularly disturbing is that the contamination has spread to the water supply - with levels of lead in a nearby well at levels well above those set by the World Health Organisation."
According to Britain's leading poisons expert, Professor John Henry, consultant at St Mary's Hospital in London, immediate steps should be taken by the authorities in India to ban the practice immediately.
The levels of toxins found in the samples would, he said, cause serious problems - polluting the land, local water supplies and the food chain.
"The results have devastating consequences for those living near the areas where this waste has been dumped and for the thousands who depend on crops produced in these fields," Professor Henry said.
'Good for crops'
Cadmium is a carcinogen and can accumulate in the kidneys, with repeated exposure possibly causing kidney failure.
Lead is particularly dangerous to children and the results of exposure can be fatal. Even at low levels it can cause mental retardation and severe anaemia.
Professor Henry said: "What most worries me about the levels found is how this might be affecting pregnant women in the area. You would expect to see an increase in miscarriages, still births and premature deliveries."
Mr Gupta said local farmers had been grateful for the fertiliser because many could not afford brand-name products of their own.
"It's good for crops," he said. "It's good for the farmers because most of them are poor and they have been using this for the past three years."Coca-Cola say they will continue to supply the sludge to farmers.
More on Plachimada
Rediff carried this story: Sludge at Coke Factory