IN the heat and dust of this rugged desert state, local manufacturers are scripting a nightmare for cola giants. Armed with domestic soda-makers, saccharine-laced colours from the neighbourhood market and unlimited supply of unfiltered borewell water, scores of small-timers are flooding rural Rajasthan's markets with low-priced, unhygienic aerated drinks whose similarity to the popular brands has the locals foxed.
Foxed, because not many in rural Rajasthan can distinguish a homemade product from a Coke or Pepsi. All they need is a drink with fizz and a low price, and served chilled—a triple-barrelled demand these cola makers fulfil with ease. And they nail the final hammer in the mnc coffin by copying their logos and replicating names.
For a sample, visit a dimly-lit plant in the backyard of a fertiliser godown off Mandrela road in Chirawa district. The Jeevan Dhara plant produces orange-coloured drink Chirag Cold with two soda-pressure machines, which men operate in ankle-deep fetid water that flows into an open drain. Every 30 minutes, a third attendant refills the water tank with a black pipe attached to an adjacent tubewell. The daily output: 250 cases (one case is 24 300-ml bottles). "We'll add two more plants next month," says owner Ram Avtar. It costs a lowly Rs 5 against the standard Rs 9 for the big brands. Avtar also produces cola brand Tipsi.
Local brands are teeming in every tea stall and grocery store in rural Rajasthan. 7thUp from Swami Nagar's Sunrise Beverages is doing roaring business with supplies touching 400 cases a day. If the Narakheda Soda Factory in Udaipur produces Facta, there's TossUp from a makeshift plant (earlier Krishna Mustard Oil Mill) in Jhunjhunu. Another plant, till the day before it was sealed following a Delhi high court order, produced 300 cases of Dream Cola.
How does this happen? Who sanctions licences? Do these small-time operators pay excise and sales tax? The licences most brandish are Rs 600 tokens issued by municipal commissioners for making soda for marginal sales. Once armed with the token, the plant virtually starts operating the next day with most owners picking up stolen Pepsi and Coke bottles from the market and erasing the logos. Given their nexus with local mafia, the operators waive the customary security deposit of
Rs 250 per case cola giants charge to ensure the bottles are returned on time. Shopkeepers love this. mncs admit that these players have been able to corner as much as 35 per cent share in the state's annual 10-million case market. And in the process avoided paying duties to the tune of Rs 150 crore, adds Madan Bhalla, a Pepsi bottler.
What's more scary is the products' unhygienic content. Last month, a random sampling by three government food inspectors found a majority of bottles from these small-time plants containing bacteria that cause a number of diseases like diarrhoea and gastroenteritis. At least 30 per cent of the bottles sampled carried dead flies and mosquitoes. "Sales of these drinks are on the rise, and most of them are highly, highly unhygienic," said Jaipur Consumer Service Centre president P.N. Mudgal in a recent letter to the state health minister.
Yet, local administration has been able to do little barring sealing just three plants in Jhunjhunu and Sanganer. District officials admit the show's run by local mafia and it'll be a long while before all offenders are booked. Companies whose logos and brands are being infringed upon have to complain. Otherwise, says Jhunjhunu SP Bhupinder Kumar, "chances of raids are very low. We can act only if the court issues orders."
Unhygienic aerated drinks are not high on the state government's agenda. The health and sanitation department admits there is a crisis and that the situation could aggravate. But it lacks both the resources and willpower to check every plant and take corrective steps. "We'll soon issue guidelines for bottlers," says state health minister Dr Rajinder Chaudhary. "The government will also involve ngos to coordinate awareness programmes among villagers."
But observers feel the onus of solving the crisis is squarely on the shoulders of the cola giants. Rajasthan is a soft drinks market where annual growth hovers in the 25-30 per cent range. "The villagers must know that a spurious drink is a health hazard," says Madanjeet Singh, president, Indian Soft Drinks Manufacturers Association. While on one hand, the legal card needs to be played, mncs also need to beef up their rural operations. Otherwise, the villager will continue to be confused about how to enjoy with the right choice.
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