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What’s plaguing the quality standards of bottled water in India?

The modern day’s rush gives us little time to be well-informed before we buy and use the zillions of thing available at the supermarket. Hence, we rely on certifications from regulatory authorities that vouch that the product is safe, durable, and is of high quality. In India, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) sets the quality regulations for various products—from gold to a bottle of water. It has a whopping 19000 standards in force with an average 350 new and revised ones per year—almost one per day!  However, how many of them are followed and implemented by manufacturers?

A recent study by Dr Aviram Sharma at the Nalanda University, Rajgir, Bihar, has analysed the regulatory governance of the standards set by BIS on bottled water quality in India. Bottled water is under the mandatory certification since 2001, meaning it is illegal for any firm to manufacture it without the BIS licence. The study, published in Current Science, concludes that the enforcement and implementation of mandatory quality standards for bottled water in India are ‘weak’.

“During 2008, when I started working on quality issues of drinking water, very few scientific studies were available in India. Besides, lack of uniform drinking water quality standards in India intrigued me. So, I started looking into the bottled water quality standards”, says Dr Sharma, talking about the motivation behind his research.

In a startling discovery, the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) reported the presence of pesticides in the bottled water in 2003.  An intense debate following this episode raised many questions over the relevance, implementation and reliability of BIS standards. However, studies have demonstrated that a majority of people continue to trust BIS standards.

“The 2003 controversy led to the formation of a parliamentary committee to address the issue as a public health concern.  Measures like the involvement of public and manufacturers in the standard-making procedure were introduced”, says Dr Sharma. “However, the many recommendations of the committee are not implemented effectively even after 15 years, and systemic issues still prevail in the drinking water quality regulation”, he rues.

The current study analysed the issue of implementation of bottled water standards using the fieldwork carried out in New Delhi, Jaipur, Patna, Kolkata and Bengaluru during 2010 to 2014. It included interviews with scientific experts, government officials, technology suppliers, bottled water manufacturing firms and around 200 consumers.

So, what is the bottleneck in the implementation of the standards? The study points to the lack of formal procedure for involving various stakeholders in formulating these standards. Except for Bengaluru, the bottled water manufacturers from across the country refute the claims of BIS that it regularly engages with them.

“BIS has included the industry to a certain extent, but mostly the big firms. The concerns of smaller firms rarely come up in mainstream discussions.  The disconnect between academia and BIS is much deeper.  While the institute heads of public research organisations are invited to take part in the standard-making, the limited involvement of individual ground level researchers often makes the standards less effective”, elaborates Dr Sharma.

Another factor that could be responsible, according to the study, is a lack of accountability and coordination among multiple regulatory authorities involved in setting and enforcing the standards. For example, the responsibility of BIS is limited to ensuring compliance of licensed manufacturers while the Public Health Engineering Department deals with illegal manufacturers. These two organisations must work in tandem to ensure strict compliance and implementation of standards.

The study also highlights the indifference of BIS towards the source of the raw water and its quality. The author says that the use of technologies like Reverse Osmosis (RO) in water-stressed areas have been creating havoc as they waste 3-4 litres of water for every one litre of treated water.  However, there is no one to control or restrict this!

“The problem is not limited to standards implementation as we tend to think, but it is a broader system level concern. The BIS is facing an acute shortage of workforce, forcing them to outsource even inspection. Without enough infrastructure, how can one expect the effective implementation of standards”, asks Dr Sharma. This shortage of workforce has led to the unabated production of bottled water by many small illegal firms without the BIS license, as they find no incentive in adhering to the standards, says the author.

The inadequate laboratory facilities also play a role in the weak implementation of standards. For ensuring compliance with BIS standards, a platoon of laboratories is required who can reliably test the water quality.  In reality, there are less than 40 BIS recognised laboratories to check the quality of bottled water for around 3000 firms having BIS license.  Out of these, only three are capable of testing parameters like radioactive residues in drinking water.

The study also suggests a few solutions to tighten the implementation of standards which includes incorporating the views of diverse stakeholders, creating an appropriate regulatory environment, and developing regulatory infrastructure such as many better laboratories. While the study puts the spotlight on the failing governance in the implementation of standards in India, will the authorities wake up?  Only time can tell.