The silent invasion

‘Only minral water availabale (sic)’ -- where in India can you see such a sign? Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi? Or even Bhopal, Indore, Lucknow, Ahmedabad? Sorry, this was in a hotel in Jhabua, the district capital of the tribal district of Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh. I asked the hotel manager, a school drop-out tribal, why he had put up this sign. He said that most of the customers demanded bottled water.

We seem to be on the verge of huge societal change where drinking water would only come from a bottle. The size of the packaged water industry market in India today has grown to over Rs. 100 billion. And why not? Bottled water comes from groundwater, which is freely available for anyone who owns a piece of land. Given the fact that municipal water is generally perceived to be unsafe, the bottled water industry is on a high. Despite a court order not to price a litre of bottled water over Rs. 12, prices can go up to Rs. 40/litre.

The problems arising from the bottled water industry is well known – from looting scarce water resources from communities to contributing to the already intractable problem of waste disposal. Additionally, the near-absent regulation of bottled water raises a big question mark on the quality of bottled water. Out of the 200-odd number of brands in the packaged water market, nearly 180 brands are local brands.  For instance, if you even take the case of Jhabua, which is a district having fluoride levels higher than the permissible limits, how can you be sure of the bottled water quality?

Can India afford this societal transformation where drinking water from bottles will become the norm? Elsewhere, people are waking up. In 2008, at a Conference of US Mayors, mayors from about 250 cities voted to ban city councils from buying bottled water. The city of San Francisco saved US $ 1 million by substituting tap water for bottled water.

We need to act fast and we need to act decisively to stop the bottled water from becoming ubiquitous. But for this, the tap or well water has to become safe to drink. As long as we pollute indiscriminately, we provide business opportunities for the bottled water industry.