Can we in India ever go “on tap”?

India has perhaps the fastest growing bottled water market in the world. According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, even in 2004, the compounded annual growth rate for bottled water sales was 25 per cent, bringing India into the “top ten” list of countries at 10th place, although in absolute terms, the volume is much lower than even China’s.

For a country with a large network of rivers, two generally adequate monsoons and a hoary tradition of storing rainwater, it is a serious setback that bottled water is squeezing out larger profits from thirsty Indians. Almost no water company gives anything to the community commensurate with the exploitation of nature that it indulges in for profit.

I remember asking Indra Nooyi, the celebrated boss of Pepsi with roots in Chennai, whether her company followed the same pattern of water exploitation in all countries. One of the seniormost editors sharpened my question for her, “Are you having a free water ride,” he asked, shedding any niceties.

Ms. Nooyi and some of the officials accompanying her tried to explain that in India, Pepsico was engaged in serious efforts at water harvesting. That still leaves me confused, although I have no doubt that the makers of Aquafina take more from the earth than they give to it, and pay a pittance for the resource.

The story of Coke drilling up profits from Plachimada needs no special explanation. Sadly, for the residents of this small village, things don’t go better with Coke.

All of which leads me to today’s exhortation by Mayor Ken Livingstone in London, appealing to people in that city to go “on tap” and stop consuming environmentally damaging bottled water. The aggressively environment-friendly Mayor points out that bottled water served with meals in restaurants costs 500 times more than tap water and is 300 times more environmentally damaging. (I presume that he refers to the environmental costs of exploiting water for concentrated mass consumption in general).

Mayor Livingstone’s appeal would rudely shock our municipal water bosses, business houses that make a killing selling bottled water and some third rung politicians who have ploughed in their questionable earnings (as in Coimbatore and Chennai) into the lucrative water business.

Metrowater, the official water agency for Chennai has had a long somnolent innings drinking up international funds from the World Bank for distribution plans. This politically controlled organisation has spent millions of dollars on water distribution, but to this day, supplies stuff that it comes with an official caution : Boil before you drink.

To avoid any confusion that it is moving towards supplying water that can be consumed “from the tap,” Metrowater launched some years ago, its own retail water sales. During those years that witness a drought, municipal supply dries up altogether, and residents must then buy water from Metrowater, or compete for a few hundred litres given free using lorries, with a mob on the street. This is the strange framework that exists in India — tax funds are used to create service departments, that then provide the service only to those who can afford to pay extra!

Tailpiece: The United States consumes the most bottled water; in 2004 it estimated the sale to be 25,766 million litres. Mexico, where the capital city is said to be sinking because of depleted groundwater, comes second with 17,614 million litres. China (11,886 million litres), Brazil (11,590 m litres) and Italy (10,653 m litres) follow. Indians bought up 5,122 m litres in that year, but as I mentioned above, this item of consumption is fast rising.

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