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The bottled water controversy
Suman Sinha |
March 21, 2003
It is strange that in our country only a scam or a startling negative research finding, seems to gain media and public attention. Poor quality bottled water has been allowed to be marketed for more than a decade, some 200 brands have mushroomed in the last five years.
Retail trade, on the railway platform or by the Railways, very often promoted and marketed the poorest quality bottled water, because many manufacturers were happy to mark the MRP as Rs 12 or 15, for a one litre bottle, while they sold them to the retailers at Rs 3 or 4 per litre.
Hence retailers, and even some government institutions made the maximum profit and pushed these low quality brands. Bottled water was often packed in PVC bottles, known to be injurious to health, and even pouches, in which it is still being sold in many parts of the country.
It is only two years ago that the health ministry and Bureau of Indian Standards decided to specify standards for water, and made it mandatory for manufacturers to mark the BIS certificate number on the labels.
Sadly, even now, brands without BIS certification are being sold on bus stands and in rural markets. What is worse is the rampant sale of water in pouches in South India and Gujarat.
If only the consumer could see the dirty rubber pipes from which municipal water is filled into these pouches, he surely would revolt. The fact that under the very nose of the government and BIS, water in pouches continues to be sold, is most disturbing.
At the time the BIS was being formulated, a few companies marketing international brands had argued that while they would fully conform to the BIS standards in quality, as the international brands they marketed had higher quality standards, they should be exempt from marking the BIS certification number on the bottles, since they felt brands having higher quality standards should lay claim to this by marking their labels as 'Pure'.
It must be understood that international companies cannot dilute their brand image or equity by selling the same brand they market globally at inferior quality standards here. It would be interesting to establish how many companies market the same international brand in India.
Aquafina, a Pepsi brand, is probably the largest selling bottled water brand in the US. In India, exactly the same exacting quality standards had to be adhered to, and the first batch from each factory was approved by Pepsi headquarters before the Aquafina brand was allowed to be produced and marketed in India.
Another very important criteria that the BIS or the Ministry of Health must lay down for selling packaged water, is the minimum equipment required in each factory, the metal to be used for pipes, and the minimum standards for filling equipment.
This will ensure quality. It is also essential that the quality of packaging material used be specified, whether it is bottles, cups or pouches. Currently good brands use PET, and not PVC; this is a must.
BIS is currently evaluating changing the standards of bottled water, this should read packaged water. It would be beneficial if they engaged in dialogue with international and national companies, and arrived at the standards used in most developed countries.
Health authorities in these countries would never allow marketing of water, which is not totally safe, as this could lead to lawsuits. Purified Water will have quality standards, different from Natural Spring Water, and the advertising claims must clearly differentiate between the two.
The main question the government has to respond to, is the number of laboratories with honest scientists it has, to check that packaged water meets the quality standards for water and the packaging material used.
If the Government cannot enforce these standards and prevent many of the 200 brands which are sub-standard or allow water sold in cups, or pouches, and cannot ensure minimum quality equipment to be used in the factories, what is the use of just having standards and fooling the public?
Companies with brand equity and standards to protect and promote, will invest heavily to guarantee quality, others who sell by giving high retail margins, will get away by either taking care of local inspectors, or local laboratories, using their financial advantage to pervert the 'system'.
The Bottled Water controversy should be put to rest, international quality standards adopted, and quality brands allowed to claim superiority of quality in their advertisements, labels etc.
All claims, as always, must stand scrutiny and be substantiated, and if wrong claims are made, punishment should follow, however, depriving the consumer of knowledge of what he is buying is being unfair to him.
Let us quickly close the controversy, get new standards introduced, but most of all, it is the government that must ensure that only such brands that meet standards and have the minimum factory equipment to meet standards are allowed to be sold; those producing sub-standard water, or spurious branded water must be heavily penalised.
(The writer is former chairman of Pepsico India Holdings Pvt. Ltd.)