Santosh Mittal v. State of Rajasthan

RLW 2005 (1) Raj 486; 2005 (1) WLC 52
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The case concerned a claim that the sale of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola carbonated beverages should be banned on the account that they are contaminated with pesticide residue and suspended impurities and are therefore harmful to human life. The petitioners relied on the report published by the Centre for Science and Environment (“CSE”), which conducted an analysis of twelve brands of beverages manufactured by PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. The CSE discovered traces of the harmful chemicals Lindane (hexachlorocyclohexane), DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), Malathion and Chlorpyrifos in 100%, 81%, 97% and 100% of the samples respectively. Each toxic chemical was found to far exceed the EEC  limits.  The petitioners requested that that the cola companies be required to make a full disclosure of the chemicals and pesticides in their drinks, if any, so that consumers may make an informed choice before purchase and consumption.

The respondent companies argued that they were not required by law to disclose the presence or absence of pesticides in their beverages and that such information would not be relevant to consumers. Furthermore, the respondent companies contended that the presence of pesticides was due to contaminated water, and was not an ingredient or additive to the beverages themselves.

The CSE report led to the constitution of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (“JPC”) to investigate the issue. The JPC found the beverage samples to be contaminated with pesticides; however the levels of concentration varied in analyses conducted by different laboratories.

The Court studied the report of the JPC and found no doubt in establishing the presence of pesticides in the beverages sold by PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. Although the exact quantity of pesticides required to cause harm could not be established, the Court deduced that a large intake of such beverages was harmful to health.

On the question of whether the companies were required to disclose the presence of pesticides on the labels of their beverages, the Court considered both constitutional and international law and decided in the affirmative.

Under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution (the “Constitution”), all citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression. This right was also embodied in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also included the right to seek and receive information. The Court reiterated the importance of giving effect to international instruments when interpreting fundamental rights embodying the same principles and held that the right to acquire information is concomitant to the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The Court also considered Article 21 of the Constitution which guaranteed the right to life and personal liberty to all persons. Relying on Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, [AIR 1963 SC 1295] and R.P. Limited v. Proprietors, Indian Express Newspapers [(1988) 4 SCC 592], the Court held that the “right to know” was an essential ingredient of participatory democracy, and hence embodied in Article 21. The Court held that such right includes the right to know the ingredients or the constituents of cosmetics, drugs and food products.

On the contention that the pesticide content derived from water, for which there are no restrictions, the Court held that the beverages produces are part of trade and commerce, and were not essential for survival. If a commercial product was to be paid for it must be entirely safe and the consumer had the right to know the presence and extent, if any, of pesticides, insecticides and chemicals in the product. Commercial interests were subservient to fundamental rights, therefore consumers must be allowed to make an informed choice.

Thus, the Court directed that the companies are bound to clearly specify the composition and nature and quantity of pesticides and other chemicals, if any, on the packaging of its beverages.

“…the expression "liberty" must receive an expanded meaning. The expression cannot be cribbed or confined to mere freedom from bodily restraint, it is wide enough to expand to full range of rights including right to hold a particular opinion and right to sustain and nature that opinion. For sustaining and nurturing that opinion it becomes necessary to receive information. In this view of the matter, we have no hesitation in holding that Article 21 grants freedom to an individual to follow and to stick to his opinions, and for pursuing such a course he has right to receive information and also a right to know the ingredients or the constituents cosmetics, during and food products.” [para. 16]

“It is not difficult to imagine why the respondent companies want to keep the question of the presence of pesticides in carbonated beverages and soft drinks under wraps. It is only because of the commercial interest that such disclosure is being withheld from the public and the consumers. Commercial interests are subservient to the fundamental rights. The manufactures cannot be allowed to keep the contents of the carbonated beverages and soft drinks under veil of secrecy. Such secrecy cannot be legitimately allowed and the veil of secrecy must be lifted for public knowledge and information in the public interest, so that they can make an informed choice for the purpose of buying the product.” [para. 20]