(When I went to Philippines back in the eighties, I was shocked to find a four-year-old boy holding a bottle of Coca Cola, outside their humble hut in a remote village, at around 6 A.M. He should have just woken up just then. I am yet to recover from the effect to this day. So completely the soft-drink giant had overpowered the hapless country. We might be headed in that direction now, only branded water replacing Coca Cola. We are being brainwashed relentlessly all round, and the powers-that-be don’t seem to realize the danger involved in allowing water packaging firms a free run of the country. The author, an expert on water-related issues, in this two-part series, deals with the threats faced by the society on the drinking water front –TNG.)
I might have been 10 or 12 years old then. I had just got down from my school bus and I saw my mom and some aunties fighting with an old man. That whole evening my mom was cursing the old man. Later I came to know his crime was that he sold a bucket of water for 25 paise. I never saw my mom so furious. I still remember her words: “How can they sell drinking water for money, they will all go to hell…”
We lived then in a small town on the banks of river Cauvery in Namakkal district, Tamil Nadu. Our house was hardly a kilometer from the famed Cauvery. When I ask my mom now, she can’t recollect anything about that incident, but my dad explains, “The public tap that distributes drinking water would have got repaired that day and some local men would have bought the water from nearby place and traded it for money.’”
Perhaps they were trying to compensate for the transportation and their labor cost. I see no problem in that. But my mom would have never thought in her wildest dreams that in the next 15 years she would have to pay almost Rs. 20 for a liter of drinking water. Imagine how much will the next generation have to pay?
Why are we paying so much of money for it anyway? What is in that water that makes it so expensive?Why am I drinking it? How does the cost dynamics works out? Is there any regulatory body for the industry? And how safe is the packaged, ‘mineral’ water? Let me try to answer such questions.
Mineral water: In point of fact mineral water, strictly speaking, is water from a mineral spring that contains various minerals, such as salts and sulfur compounds. There are approximately 100 minerals in the mineral water.
Traditionally, mineral waters were used or consumed at their spring sources, often referred to as “taking the waters” or “taking the cure,” at developed cities such as spas, baths, or wells. The term spa was used for a place where the water was consumed and bathed in; bath where the water was used primarily for bathing, therapeutics, or recreation; and well where the water was to be consumed.
In modern times, it is far more common for mineral water to be bottled at the source and widely distributed for consumption. Travelling to the mineral water site for direct access to the water is now uncommon, and in many cases not possible (because of exclusive commercial ownership rights). There are more than 3,000 brands of mineral water commercially available worldwide.
We are charged for the mineral water. But how many of us know what we actually get is “de-mineralized water”. Will you ever eat some food that has no calorie in it and is yet very expensive??
You might be surprised to know that most of the bottled water that is sold in the market has no minerals in it! But it is never acknowledged. In the process of purification treatment, through reverse osmosis (RO), most of the minerals are lost, and demineralized water can adversely impact our health. But again no one seems to care.
History: It all started back in 1965 when ‘Parle Bisleri’ decided to get into then bottle water segment. Thereafter multi-national companies like Pepsi-co, Coca Cola and big corporate like Tata slowly entered the market, one after another. Now, the Indian bottled water market stands at over Rs.1,000 crore. Thanks to endorsements by celebrities and ad blitzes, the people at large are misled into believing that all water except bottled water is unsafe. Presently in the absence of bottled water, many of us even prefer not to drink. We have been conditioned to such an extent, and the water-packaging firms are making a killing.
Peter Gleick, in his Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, examines how drinking water was commodified and branded over the past 30 years, turning what was once a free natural resource into a multibillion-dollar global industry — while raising questions about the taste and safety of drinking tap water.
In our own country, you might have noticed that the packaged drinking water industries run in clusters, invariably centered in a location where the ground water quality is good. Good quality raw water ensures two things –
1. Minimal production costs
2. Maximum time to pollute the source – meaning it takes a pretty long time before the ground water is polluted beyond redemption, only when protests start. So till then the ‘industrialists’ can carry on with their business merrily, unquestioned by anyone.
In Chennai itself, most of the industries are concentrated in and around the Red Hills and the Palar basin of the neighbouring Kancheepuram district. Interestingly water bottles churned out by a single firm might be sold under different brand names by different distributors. So then to think this brand is better than another is absolutely delusional. Besides it will be next to impossible to trace the source of a problem, say, when contamination is detected in some brand. After all they might all be buying from one and the same firm!
Safety: We believe that bottled water is very safe to drink. In reality the safety of the bottled water depends on so many factors. The way it is processed, type of treatment technology, handling, transportation, storage etc. Water treated under stringent conditions may still get contaminated during transportation and storage. Have you ever paid attention to the plastic container that the water is stored in?
As per rules, every material that is in contact with the drinking water, including the O-ring seals, should comply with certain prescribed standards. But what is happening in reality?
Quality: Indian standards IS 10500:2012 clearly defines rules and regulation for the packaged drinking water quality, micro-biological, physical and chemical parameters of the treated water. There are separate rules governing the water treatment facilities too.
The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), the nodal agency for ensuring safety standards, has so much on its hands, it is difficult to see how it can indeed ensure the safety and security of drinking water anywhere, though nominally the bigger firms do get product certification from the BIS.
Treatment Technology: Though there are no specific methods imposed, almost all the packaged drinking water plant uses reverse osmosis method to purify/ treat the water. RO is by far the most advanced technology available for water treatment.
But reverse osmosis is an incredibly inefficient process. On average, the reverse osmosis process wastes three gallons of water for every one gallon of purified water it produces, it has been pointed out.
Besides the “reject” water on the source side of an RO system must be periodically flushed in order to keep it from becoming so concentrated that it forms a scale on the membrane itself.
RO systems also typically require a carbon prefilter for the reduction of chlorine, which can damage an RO membrane; and a sediment prefilter is always required to ensure that fine suspended materials in the source water do not permanently clog the membrane. Thus so many pitfalls along the way, but there is no guarantee the system is fool-proof, what with the oversight mechanism being very poor.
Still we are obsessed with the RO technology as if that is the only technology available. Main reason why the technology is so popular is because of the associated profit margin and its potential to help scale up the business.
There are mainly three commercial brands. Aquafina, Kinley and Bisleri. All these are owned by MNCs, and they sell a liter of water for Rs.20/-. Have you ever noticed almost all the local brand water bottles (every brand starts with aqua) are similar to one of the above mentioned water bottles and all sold at the same rate.
Commercial bottles are sold at Rs.20, IRCTC water at Rs.15, recently launched Amma water at Rs.10. 20 liter water bottles for the households are sold at Rs.35-45 depends on the supplier and the area. Remember, for all these the product is RO-treated water. Then why so much of difference in cost?
The cost to produce a liter of drinking water is around Rs.3-Rs.4 (without labor, marketing, taxes and profit). Of course marketing takes a big chunk of the budget. Even then there is 3-4 times profit. Think of any other business that gives you that kind of a margin.
Unorganised Market: More than 70% of the market is unorganised. Big companies hold a very limited share in the overall market. The regional treatment plant owners are usually very influential (politically, socially and economically).
Every now and then, we come across reports of the pathetic condition in the quality of drinking water. In Tamil Nadu alone, there are more than 900 registered units. In many places, this business is being run like a cottage industry (especially in the case of Rs.1 pouch). It is very difficult to identify such units, leave alone monitoring or regulating it.
In the next part we will take a look at what the TATAs propose to do in this scenario ripe for mindless exploitation of the unwary consumer.
(To be concluded)