High Court Rules "Commercial Interests are Subservient to Fundamental Rights" in Coca-Cola Appeal
The Telegraph
November 4, 2004

New Delhi: Rajasthan High Court yesterday dismissed a review petition of soft drink companies against its directive to them to list contents of their products.

Chief Justice Anil Dev Singh and Justice K.S. Rathore had directed “the respondent companies, namely PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, and all other manufacturers of carbonated beverages and soft drinks, to disclose the composition and contents of the products, including the presence, if any, of pesticides and chemicals, on the bottle, package or container, as the case may be”. They were asked to comply with the order within a month.

The order of October 8 had come in response to a public interest litigation filed by advocate Swati Bhati in March 2003 on behalf of the Youth Welfare Society, Jaipur.

Yesterday, a division bench of Justices S.K. Keshote and K.S. Rathore rejected the arguments of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo against the October order.

“The companies,” Bhati said, “will have to comply with the orders with immediate effect. The cola companies had filed an application that implementation be delayed by two months. But the court rejected it.”

On behalf of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, respectively, former Union law minister Arun Jaitley and senior advocate Iqbal Chhagla had challenged the order on the ground that it would force their clients to compromise with their “commercial confidentiality”.

Passing such directives, they argued, was in the domain of the legislature and the executive, not the court.

The advocates further argued that since their products were bottled at different places, it was not feasible to fulfil the court directive as pesticide content in water varied from place to place.

The high court noted that “both the counsel for Coca-Cola and PepsiCo submitted that small traces of DDT and other pesticides are not harmful to the health of the consumers”.

While issuing the judgment, the court had deliberated on the presence of pesticides in soft drinks based on a study by the Centre for Science and Environment and the findings of the joint parliamentary committee that was set up to investigate the issue.

The advocates told the court that the directive was against Article 14 of the Constitution — which ensures equality before law — as it bound only the manufacturers of beverages and not foodstuff makers.

Such directives, they argued, could not be given to private parties under Article 226 of the Constitution. The order, Jaitley and Chhagla said, was in a way directed at their clients alone as Coke and Pepsi covered a major chunk of the soft drink business.

Earlier, the court had said that according to Article 19 (I) (A), people have the right to know about the product they are buying and consuming.

“In case such a disclosure is made, there would be panic in the market and the business will dwindle,” the companies argued and added that Article 19 provided freedom of expression, not right to information.

The court said: “Commercial interests are subservient to fundamental rights.”

The cola companies may approach the Supreme Court within a month.

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