Perverted white man’s burden

The British Raj believed in the white man’s burden. Rudyard Kipling saw Indians as “lesser breeds without the law”, of whom no decent standards could be expected. But he saw the white man as a superior species, of whom the highest standards should be expected. I find an eerie echo of this in the row over pesticide levels in bottled water and soft drinks made by Coca Cola and Pepsi in India.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says that soft drinks made by these companies contain 11 to 70 times as much of the European norm of pesticides like DDT. Coke and Pepsi have denied the charge, and demanded an independent test. Meanwhile, outraged media and Parliamentarians have demanded penal action. I felt a surge of outrage on reading of high pesticide levels in Coke, and gratitude towards CSE. Yet, I am altogether more outraged at the contamination of ordinary drinking water. Across India, drinking water is tainted with faecal matter, and crawls with lethal bacteria.

In my youth, people drank from the tap with few ill-effects, and none believed it possible to sell bottled water when it was available free from the tap. But today tap water in most towns and cities is a huge health hazard that has created a substantial upper-class market for bottled water.

Pesticides are widely used for farming and combating malaria and have entered our groundwater. Chlorinated pesticides like DDT accumulate in the food chain and human body, and in time can attain carcinogenic levels. This is a problem, but pales in comparison with bacteria in drinking water, which cause millions of illnesses and deaths every year. Yet, neither the media nor Parliament seem particularly concerned about the health of hundreds of millions of poor Indians dependent on untreated water. The entire row is about bottled water and fizzy drinks consumed only by the elite. It reminds me of Anatole France’s sarcastic jibe, “the ill-health of the poor is only to be expected, but the health of the rich leaves much to be desired.”

Worse, the row is a throwback to the white man’s burden. The unstated assumption in the controversy is that low standards among Indian suppliers are to be expected, but white corporations must observe high standards. MPs have banned Coke and Pepsi in Parliament House. Would it not be more logical to ban water?

The most striking illustration of our low standards is that we do not have norms at all for pesticide levels in soft drinks. Pepsi and Coke cannot be charged with breaking the rules, because there are none! This is no oversight. Legislators have deliberately not legislated norms for water because it would open them to prosecution (they are responsible for public water supply). They believe that the Indian babus and netas should be able to kill with impunity, but white men must observe high standards.

Some time ago, the media and courts castigated MNCs for advertisements painted on the rocks near the Rohtang Pass. This was denounced as the “rape of the rock”, which ruined the environment. Yet, as columnist Kanika Datta pointed out, the Rohtang Pass and every other Indian monument and tourist spot is covered with graffiti inscribed by thousands of Indians. Neither courts nor newspapers call that rape. They seem to believe, like Kipling, that nothing better can be expected of Indians (who are lesser breeds without the law), but white men must observe high standards.

At the risk of stretching a point, let me recall the Bhopal disaster of Union Carbide. This killed 3,000 people and maimed many more. I hoped then that the disaster would induce higher safety consciousness and a demand for better standards. In the year that followed, I wrote editorials on many industrial disasters (almost always in the public sector). I found that around 2,000 people died every year in coal mines, dam sites, railway accidents, explosions, etc. But these provoked no public outrage. That remained fixed on Union Carbide, and on prosecuting its white president (a titular head with no executive function). There was no outrage at the killing of thousands by the public sector, and no move to prosecute the President of India (who is titular head of the public sector without executive functions).

Some outrage is better than none. I hope outrage over Coke and Pepsi will produce new safety consciousness in the public. But I fear we will simply take refuge in a perverted version of the white man’s burden. Kipling saw white superiority as justification for white rule. Our perverted version holds that white superiority is a good reason to ban white businesses and leave Indian ones free to kill. How sad. You can almost hear Kipling saying triumphantly, “I told you so.”

What do you think?