Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Loot of Water

Water, the most essential element to sustain life and the largest natural resource that regenerates every year without human intervention is being plundered for profit. It is the fundamental right of every citizen and communities to have access to clean drinking water. But where is clean drinking water. Unfortunately, it is bottled up by giant corporations who profit by it enormously. As local and state governments increasingly absolve themselves of their primary responsibility of providing potable water to its citizens, the big corporations have stepped in. With a media blitzkrieg of tap water denouncements, the bottled water industry in India has been growing at a phenomenal rate of 40% year on year. The packaged water business is worth Rs 2,000 crore, with over 1,200 bottling plants and 100 brands of packaged water battling it over for a larger piece of the 5 billion liter lucrative business across the country.

Bottled water is a business built on the foundation of bad governance, inequity and blatant exploitation by overdrawing groundwater, and robbing local communities of their water resources and livelihoods. The worst part is in several cities, the water board itself supplies lakhs of liters of water to the bottling companies at throwaway prices of one rupee per hundred liters, which the company treats, bottles and sells at a price 1000 times than it has cost it. At the same time, water boards fail to supply drinking water even in meager quantities to the citizens on a daily basis. In several places, the bottling companies pay a nominal cess of Rs 5000 per year to the government for the use of ground water. High powered pumps are used to draw the ground water 24 hours, 365 days depleting the ground water and leaving the nearby farmers high and dry.

Calls from Citizen groups and NGOs to regulate the bottled water industry from plundering the natural water sources have gone unheeded. Instead, the State too joined the bandwagon of the Corporates. Take for instance the Indian Railways which transports millions of passengers every day. Instead of focusing on providing clean drinking water at every railway station, it has started its own brand of bottled water. India's enormous water resources seem to be for the taking, by the State and the Private Corporations.

Ironically, for the rich and the middle class, especially in cities, bottled home packs have become part of household grocery bills. Neither these sections nor even judiciary is aggrieved at this usurping of peoples' rights. This has given enormous scope for the bottled water industry to come out with new marketing strategies such as 20-litre jumbo home packs. As the most influential sections of society unquestioningly consumes bottled water, the pressure on the local administrations is eased and they further neglect to supply clean drinking water to the rest of the populace.

Providing safe drinking water is the responsibility of the State. That they have failed miserably in doing so is evident from the fact that over 1,600 Indians reportedly die every day because of waterborne diseases. Despite this macabre scenario, the Central and State Governments have literally washed their hands of the responsibility of providing clean drinking water to its citizens denying them their fundamental right.

Apart from the fundamental rights issue, there are compelling reasons for the State to regularize public water distribution systems. If calculations by the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute are any indication, it takes about 300,000 barrels of oil to manufacture the water bottles Indians use each year. If we add the substantial amounts of fuel used in transporting water and the cost of recycling, the environmental costs of bottling water are substantial.

If affluent Indians are gravitating towards bottled water for obvious reasons, it is baffling to see Americans consuming bottled water when even water in their toilets is as clean as bottled water. The country has by far one of the best public water supplies in the World, yet Americans have consumed last year 25 billion liters of bottled water valued at $ 15 billion. A report by the Washington-based advocacy group, National Resource Defense Council, says one-fourth of all bottled water is just bottled tap water and another two-thirds is ground water-- sometimes with simple additional treatments. Thanks to a campaign by Corporate Accountability International, the dark secret of the bottled water is out in the open. However, unlike in India, the local governments in the US have started campaigns to educate the public on the cleanliness of the tap water.

In the absence of an effective nationwide policy and norms for groundwater use, it appears that the bottled water industry is getting away with making huge profits out of a resource that rightfully belongs to all citizens. India should revisit its policy on allowing Corporations to blatantly exploit this natural resource and strengthen its water distribution systems. Otherwise, soon the Corporate Companies will have a stranglehold on this most essential item, the elixir of life, WATER.


Sridhar Upadhya said...

The future of mankind is dependent on water, not oil, is what the wise say.Truly, when nature has provided this resource in more abundance than oil, it appears that the same mindless human intervention and maladministration is making this a scare resource. We should really manage water resources well and ensure equitable and non-commercial availability to all.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ramana,

I fully agree with you. Nice thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Ummm. I will think before buying water. I thought they bottle it from the springs in himalayas or the river originating mountains.


Srinivas said...

Isn't using a water purifier such as Aquaguard eliminate a lot of bottled water consumption. At least in homes and offices we can look at that. The cost of the machine about 9000/- for a decent one will more than pay for the bottled water in relatively short time for a family of four.