The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The other name for water is life. It has been known for a very long time that the poor of India are often deprived of water and definitely of good quality water. But now it is clear that even the affluent in India are drinking water full of impurities and pesticides. Analysis carried out by the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization, has revealed that most of the brands selling drinking water in bottles have pesticide residues in excess of levels permitted as safe for drinking. This leaves a big question mark regarding the bottled water industry, which has total sales of Rs 1,000 crore and is growing at the rate of 40 per cent. The industry includes a number of well-known global players. The advocates of the industry will argue that they are not breaking any law and are conforming to the standards laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards. But these standards are far below the international norms for bottled water. This would suggest that the global players use one set of norms for Indian markets and another set for the international ones where quality control is more stringent. In other words, there are international standards and Indian standards. Such double standards applied to any item would be appalling: to a thing as vital as drinking water, it is despicable.

There can be no denying that the dual standard is rooted in norms announced by the BIS. The latter has offered an explanation for setting its standards lower than the ones required in international markets. It says that factors like the source of raw materials, available water purification technology and enforceability of the standards are reasons for lowering the norms. This is at best a spurious argument from a body that should be protecting consumers from sub-standard products. The BIS’s reasons do not explain why manufacturers of bottled water are knowingly selling inferior water to Indian consumers. The word knowingly is used advisedly since they know that they cannot sell those bottles in international markets. They are made to meet Indian standards and not international ones.

This distinction between standards is a uniquely Indian thing. India aspires to be a global economic force but it does not aspire to meet global standards. Taking advantage of this laxity of standards, global manufacturers are not bringing in international products but are playing according to Indian rules. Bottled water is one very glaring and important example. Indian Made Foreign Liquor — a bizarre oxymoron if ever there was one — is another. Indian whisky or Indian vodka or Indian gin has very little in common, save the name, with what is sold under the name in international markets. Even when foreign brands make their products in India, they do not emulate their international brands. They follow Indian manufacturing norms and use the international brand name. The non-discerning Indian imbiber of alcoholic beverages is none the wiser. The special lower standards that India and Indians accept for themselves in almost every sphere is an index of India’s persistent backwardness.

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