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Bottling the Tap Water: Bottled Water Industry in India

65 years after India’s independence access to drinking water and water availability remains a major challenge. 2011 Census data shows that just 32 per cent of the households use treated water for drinking and 17 per cent still fetch drinking water from a source located more than 500 meters in rural areas or 100 meters in urban centers. In 2010 the annual per capita availability of freshwater resources was 1588 Cubic Meters (1)  – a reduction in availability from 6042 cubic meters in 1947 (2)  which is likely to drop below 1000 cubic meters a situation labelled as water scarcity (3) by end of this century.

However, the bottled water industry has seen a phenomenal growth, at a compound annual growth rate of 19%, with India being the 10th largest consumer of bottled water in the world. In 2010, the revenue it generated was over 250 million US$ which is expected to grow to 1.3 billion US$ by 2020 as estimated in a report by IKON consulting group (4).

The growth in this sector is in line with the other related water sector reforms as reflected in the draft national policy under consideration (5a, 5b).  Southern India, water stressed region, is the biggest consumer of bottled water representing more than 50% of the total market with a share of 48% of 3,300 registered plants manufacturing bottled water in India. In addition there are nearly 12,000 unregistered water plants in India. Bottled water industry is controlled by Parle, Coca Cola, Pepsi Co, Kingfisher, Tata, Indian Railways and others.

A difference though needs to be made between Packaged Drinking Water, that is to say water drawn from any source, and treated for consumption, which amounts to 90% of the bottled water market in India, and Natural Mineral Water, drawn from a natural underground source, which accounts only for 10% of the market (6). Most of the bottled water sold in India is thus primarily groundwater that has been treated and purified (7. AIYER, Ananthakrishnan, “The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India”, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 22, Issue 4, pp. 640‐658, 2007, p. 641).

The increasing expansion of the bottled water market involves three sets of issues that raise questions and criticism regarding the whole industry and its implication. They relate to water procurement, ground water exploitation and pollution, and quality of drinking water – together impacting the overall right to water of everyone, since it only caters to those who can pay. The very existence of such a large market for bottled water raises questions regarding the quality of water procurement, and the ability of the government to provide its people with safe drinking water. The manufacturing of bottled water itself, secondly, is the cause to further problems, as it leads to over-exploitation and pollution of groundwater. Finally, the very quality of the water that is sold to consumer is under suspicion.

Bottling water companies continue to over exploit groundwater due to lack of legal provisions regulating rights to groundwater and its use. India does not have an exclusive all comprehensive water law (8). Regarding groundwater, the legislation is much more vague. All natural resources are in theory held by the State in public trust. The groundwater ownership is more directly determined accordingly to the Indian Easement Act of 1882: section 7 (g) of the Indian Easement Act states that every landowner has the right to “collect and dispose” of all water under the land within his own limit. Although the owner of the land does not own the water, he has the right to collect and use it (9).  As a result the legislation does not provide for national and or State government overseeing water exploitation by these companies. Often concern has been expressed with regard to farmers over exploiting the ground water but no such concern by the government has been raised by the government till date, which is justified in terms of investment and public service.

Bottled water companies have also been responsible for releasing untreated waste, thus aggravating phenomena of water pollution, as was done by Coca Cola in its Plachimada, Kerala plant (10). Pepsico too has indulged in similar practices and tried to hide it under the false advertising “Giving Back More Water Than We Take”, Achieving a “Positive Water Balance” (as is advertised on Aquafina bottles) (11. “Deception with Purpose: Pepsico’s Water Claims in India”, India Resource Center and Community Resource Centre, November 30, 2011. Also see our earlier blog on this topic http://canadians.org/blog/?p=12792).  Coca Cola and Pepsico have been known to set up their bottling plant in water-stressed areas. For instance, Coca Cola has set up a bottling plant in the drought prone area of Kala Dera, near Jaipur, even though India’s Ministry of Water resources has raked 80% of groundwater resources in Rajasthan as “overexploited” and nearly 34% as “critical” (12).  Likewise, of the 34 operating Pepsico plants in 2009, 9 plants were located in areas that the government of India has classified as water stressed (13. “Deception with Purpose: Pepsico’s Water Claims in India”, India Resource Center and Community Resource Centre, November 30, 2011).  Over the years, inhabitants of areas neighbouring the plants have denounced the overexploitation of groundwater that was endangering their own access to water, as 80% of drinking water supply schemes of rural India depend on groundwater sources (14).  The issue becomes particularly worrying during the Summer months: although water availability is then most difficult, it is during those months that companies such as Pepsico and others reach their peak production capacity (15. “Deception with Purpose: Pepsico’s Water Claims in India”, India Resource Center and Community Resource Centre, November 30, 2011).

Apart from its impact on the water ecology, it has been calculated that globally, bottled water accounts for as many as 1.5 million tons of plastic waste annually, among which only 20% is recycled, thus contributing further to issues in waste management and pollution (16).

The rationale underneath the consumption of bottled water rather than other forms of water, in particular tap water, is the belief that bottled water is of superior quality, however, this is questionable since 90% of the water distributed in bottles are packaged water only. A study led by the Center for Science and Environment in 2003 after analysing 17 different brands of Packaged Drinking Water and Packaged Natural Mineral Water found Pesticides in every samples, most containing as much as five different pesticide residues such as Lindane, DDT, Malathion and Chlorpyrifos. On average, samples from the Delhi region contained 36.4 times more pesticides than European standards (17).  The most commonly found pesticide residues were Lindane, DDT, Malathion and Chlorpyrifos. Such levels are enough to cause long-term cancer, liver and kidney damage, disorders of nervous system, birth defects and disruption of the immune system.

The poor quality of bottled water can thus again be traced back to insufficient regulation, as set up the Bureau of Indian Standards which state that “pesticide residues as covered under the relevant rule of the Prevention of Food Act, 1954, shall be “below detectable limits” when tested in accordance with relevant methods” (18).

The bottled water industry is a threat to the right to water, since it promotes privatisation and water grab in all form apart from causing server damage to the environment and ecology. There is an urgent need to regulate them and invest in public water systems which will slowly remove the dependence of the people from the bottled water in their daily life.