The American bottled water industry has been rippled by a cartoon film called The Story of Water (available on made by Annie Leonard, a sustainability activist. Over seven minutes, the riveting animation critiques the bottled water industry for “manufacturing demand" for its product by creating paranoia about the safety of tap water, which in the US is not an issue. It also misleads consumers into believing that the water is sourced from pristine springs whereas it is merely packaged tap water. It goes on to explain how bottled water is also a huge ecological disaster.

The film is equally, but differently, relevant for us. Let’s look at the nature of demand for bottled water in urban India. Unlike in the US, the water in the Indian home is not considered safe to be drunk directly. Almost all urban families use either an RO system, a candle filter or a big can of mineral water. In public places, such as railway stations, the dirty tap marked “drinking water" doesn’t inspire confidence and mostly runs dry; so people are forced to buy packaged water. Restaurants are required to provide customers with safe drinking water. Yet they pose the question: “normal or mineral?" Since customers have no visible quality standard to know if their “normal" will be clean, they get ripped off paying double for mineral water.

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So, bottled water in India isn’t catering to “manufactured demand" but is merely filling in for the lack of safe, clean water in our kitchen taps. That’s why bottled water in India is a Rs1,000 crore industry growing at 40-50% annually.

Ethical angle: Yet there are ethical questions posed by water activists. In India, water is an unequally distributed resource. Rapid urbanization has exploded the demand for water, putting severe pressure on groundwater which is now fast depleting. The packaged water industry merely taps this groundwater (in some cases illegally), treats it in their plants and sells it back to us at several times the cost. This, say environmentalists, can’t be a sustainable way in which urban India can fulfil its daily drinking water needs. It’s a Darwinian system where those who can afford to buy the water survive and those who can’t have an uncertain fate.

Clean, safe water is a basic right that citizens must lobby for with their civic authorities and pressure governments to deliver. In Chennai, for instance, the thanni lorry, or the water tank is such a ubiquitous presence that it’s hard to remember a time when people didn’t have to worry about water. Mumbai’s suburbs had severe water scarcity this year. Buying bottled water continuously while ignoring the core issue legitimizes it as an alternative and takes away responsibility from government institutions which are supposed to deliver.

Eco disaster: Manufacturing all those plastic bottles requires enough oil to fuel millions of cars. The empty water bottle is next to the polythene bag as a symbol of eco-irresponsibility as it results in mountains of plastic waste. Binayak Das, former researcher with Bangalore’s ARGHYAM and co-author of the book Springs of Life on India’s water systems, says: “The government should sell the water in public kiosks where people bring their own containers and get them filled. That’s how it works in many Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok."

Quality of bottled water: In India, we face another peculiar issue. There are about 200 brands of bottled water, many of them local and spurious. Many a traveller has arrived in a small, hot dusty town of the Indian plains and resigned himself to a Aquafona instead of Aquafina as that would be the only option for miles. The ISI mark is supposed to ensure quality, but non-ISI brands abound. As Das points out, the treatments they claim vary widely from UV-treated to RO-processed to sterilized. No one knows which of these processes are effective and required and which are superfluous. In 2003, the Centre for Science and Environment reported finding toxic pesticides in leading brands, resulting in the closure of several bottling plants in the country.

Anti-bottled water movement: In developed economies, there is a growing trend against buying bottled water in restaurants. In the US, the San Fransisco municipality was the first to ban bottled water, followed by Seattle and then several other towns. The sale of refillable metal sippers in the US has increased, while that of bottled water has gone down. People carry safe water from home to offices and gyms. Companies like Google and Cisco have banned packaged water on their corporate campuses and are taking pride in “thinking out of the bottle".

In India, we can’t eliminate bottled water from our lives but we can minimize its mindless consumption by carrying water from home as far as possible. It saves money, doesn’t add to plastic waste and indirectly conserves a scarce resource. Besides, with dodgy quality standards of many brands, we just might be better off with old fashioned but perfectly safe boiled water.

Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd.

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