The trigger for the topic this fortnight was an experience which a colleague had at the Café Coffee Day outlet in Greater Kailash, New Delhi. When she asked for water, she was refused and told that the RO (reverse osmosis water purifier) system doesn’t work and she would hence have to buy bottled water.
When she and her companions stood their ground and insisted that it is their right to be served drinking water, they got their way. She has noticed this in another coffee shop in a mall and in Breads and More, a delicatessen in the posh Greater Kailash area. Indrojit Chaudhuri, a business process consultant encountered the same situation in Café Coffee Day, Mayur Vihar in east Delhi where he is either told there is no regular water or that the filter system is not working. Last month, India Today’s Bangalore supplement reported the same problem in the city. Can restaurants refuse to serve customers water? No, they cannot. A Supreme Court ruling makes it mandatory for all eateries to serve its patrons free drinking water.
Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns
If some restaurants are finding that the height of summer when the mercury crosses 40 degrees in much of India, is exactly when the RO system mysteriously breaks down, then it is their onus to provide an equally good alternative. Maybe buy canned mineral water for the duration of the breakdown. But giving a customer no choice except to purchase mineral water smacks of a dishonourable way to make money.
It seems to be a trend in places where the restaurant knows people can easily afford bottled water, if they are pushed to make a choice between going without water or buying. The reason I’m making the distinction is because in the local idli-dosa joints that I checked out for this purpose in Mumbai and Chennai last fortnight, the server arrives promptly with his tray full of steel tumblers filled with water. Whether that water is indeed clean can only be ascertained by checking samples in the lab, but these places are at least adhering to the requirement that potable water should be served to customers.
In India, quality of tap water is unfortunately so dubious that it is not an option at all, while it is a perfectly acceptable option in developed countries. Even then, there have been cases of restaurants refusing to serve water and making people buy it. In 2009, a popular Singapore website on food and dining, www.sparklette.net, listed a hundred restaurants in the city that do not serve tap water. The list created itself as reader contributions poured in. The matter was reported in the Sunday Times which snowballed into an issue that readers could not stop commenting on. A prominent voice in Singapore’s restaurant industry was quoted as saying, “In Singapore, there is no excuse other than snobbish vanity to drink bottled water and no reason other than an attempt to increase revenues for restaurateurs to refuse to offer tap water to their patrons.”
In the UK, there is a new awareness about the rights of customers to be served tap water. An article in the Guardian reports that in 2008, a water company Thames Water along with a government-aided body called Consumer Council for Water, began a campaign to encourage eateries to serve regular tap water. This was in reaction to consumer unhappiness over British restaurants practising “tap water snobbery” where nine out of 10 restaurants would push consumers to purchase mineral water and not serve them regular water. In April 2010, the British Home Office issued fresh guidelines to bars, pubs and clubs to serve free water to those who ask for it. In the hip bars and restaurants of New York, there is a reverse snobbery at play which is making customers reject bottled water and opt for tap water. Choosing bottled water is viewed as ecologically irresponsible, as it contributes to huge mounds of plastic waste and carbon footprint as most of it is shipped from overseas (see http://bit.ly/aFwOhu).
See previous column on water | Thinking out of the bottle
In India, for all practical purposes “normal water” has come to mean RO water. In restaurants, the poser “Normal or mineral?” is a cunning one, designed to create insecurity in the customers. Typically, when the waiter innocently poses this query, there is a moment of hesitation at the table and we find ourselves choosing mineral over normal. What makes us purchase our water even when the waiter assures us that normal means RO, which is what we would be drinking at home? It is because we suspect that given the way things are in our blessed land, it may not actually be filtered water. What if they just fill it from the tap and bring it to the table? Or what if the candle in the purifying system hasn’t been changed in years? Owing to this lack of confidence in what goes on in a restaurant’s kitchen, customers often buy bottled water when eating out. If a restaurant was to declare upfront that they serve clean, filtered water, as a customer I would see this declaration as a surrogate indicator of how trustworthy and hygiene-conscious the place is.
The significant point is that as a customer, I could choose to buy mineral water even if there is normal water for various reasons. That choice is a customer’s prerogative. But to be pushed into a corner on a hot summer day and be left with no choice but to buy bottled water goes against a legal requirement. It also contradicts our famed Indian hospitality where atithi devo bhava is such a fundamental tenet that it has become our tourism pitch. Helping each other cope with the harsh summer used to be the way of life for centuries. Five hundred years ago, emperor Sher Shah Suri built sarais (highway inns) every two miles on the Grand Trunk Road, which had at the entrance, large jars of water for all parched travellers to quench their thirst. Some of our modern day restaurants seem to have come a long way from such practices.
Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org