Is your bottled water safe to drink?

A study finds that lack of coordination, poor stakeholder involvement, inadequate training and poor infrastructure hinder the enforcement of bottled water quality standards in India.
Many illegal bottled water manufacturers exist in the market. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Many illegal bottled water manufacturers exist in the market. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is a fairly common practice among people to buy bottled drinking water while travelling in India with the hope that it will minimise the risk of getting ill due to contaminated water. But is this water safe to drink?

Recent evidence shows that as high as three out of 10 units of the packaged drinking water sold across the country are highly contaminated and do not conform to safety standards. Manufacturers not only fail to follow the prescribed standards but have also been found to flout quality guidelines in a few cases!

Monitoring bottled water quality in India

Quality standards for bottled drinking water are set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), the former Indian Standards Institute, that was established in India in 1947 to monitor health and safety aspects of all products that are consumed on a mass scale. The BIS promotes these standards and monitors its certification and enforcement with the help of its offices and laboratories located in different parts of the country. The main office of the BIS is located in New Delhi while there are five regional offices at Kolkata in the east, Chandigarh in the north, Mumbai in the west and Chennai in the south. Besides this, it has 28 branch offices, eight laboratories (central, regional and branch) and training institutes in major Indian cities.

However, concerns continue to be raised about the implementation or enforcement of these standards. A recent study, Science-based mandatory standards and the implementation gap: the case of bottled water regulations in India published in the journal Current Science, finds that a number of factors influence the poor implementation of the bottled water quality standards.

The study draws on data from fieldwork carried out in New Delhi, Jaipur, Patna, Kolkata and Bengaluru and interviews scientific experts, government officials, technology suppliers, bottled water manufacturing firms, and consumers from different parts of the country.

Overlap of departments spoil the game 

The study finds that having different government bodies or departments to monitor different activities such as regulation-making, certification process and implementation or enforcement of standards makes the process more complicated as the responsibilities, duties and functioning mechanisms of the various departments and ministries are considerably different.

For example, the BIS is not the only agency for enforcing regulations; other government agencies also have this responsibility. The BIS certification was made mandatory under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 for which the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW), Government of India (GoI) is the nodal agency. The subject of Prevention of Food Adulteration is in the concurrent list of the Indian Constitution and the enforcement is mainly done by the state and the union territory governments. The enforcement is carried out by the State Public Health Engineering Department (PHED), which comes under the MOHFW.

The BIS enforcement activity is limited to or focused on certifying and monitoring bottled water and identifying and curbing the misuse of the standard mark or its imitation by unscrupulous traders and manufacturers not holding a valid BIS licence. However, in cases where manufacturers are operating without the BIS licence, the BIS cannot enforce the law and regulate them. Government departments such as the PHED are responsible for curbing such activities. As a result, many illegal bottled water manufacturers exist in the market than in the list provided by the BIS over which it has no control.

Gaps in implementation leave weak links

The BIS regional branches only issue licences to those firms whose product adheres to standards prescribed, but checking of raw water quality at its source or its availability is not done by them. Thus, specific groundwater concerns such as pollution due to high arsenic, fluoride and nitrate content in the water and overexploitation in different regions remain unaddressed while granting licences in a situation where bottled water companies and other industries regularly resort to groundwater over-extraction.

There is no functional mechanism to incorporate the inputs of different stakeholders into the regulation-making process. Concerns and distrust regarding the implementation of regulatory standards are common among stakeholders. There is very less information available on the implementation of the regulatory mechanisms and the data in the public domain.

Inadequate infrastructural, human and technical backup hinder implementation

The BIS standards specification for packaged drinking water provides guidelines for different kinds of water quality tests to be performed by the firms. Some specific tests (such as radioactive contaminants) need to be done only by BIS-recognised laboratories. However, only a small number of laboratories are licensed by the BIS which are located mostly in selected major metropolitan cities of India. The number of laboratories is very few in numbers compared to the growing number of licences issued to manufacturing firms. Furthermore, very few of these laboratories are capable of performing all the specialised tests. For example, only three out of 38 laboratories currently have the capability to check radioactive residues in packaged drinking water.

According to the BIS guidelines, every firm needs to send samples for analysis of toxic metals once in six months and for pesticide residues and alpha and beta emitters once in two years. Shortage of laboratories makes it difficult to test a large number of samples per month as there is no regulation on the number of licences to be awarded by branch offices in a particular year.

Shortage of human resources (trained manpower) for monitoring the licensing process is another important hindrance and inspection work is now being subcontracted to external auditors and experts which affects the quality of the implementation process.

The paper argues for the need to rethink the existing regulatory governance models for bottled drinking water in India by:

  • bridging the current implementation gap in water quality control mechanisms by incorporating the views of diverse stakeholders, including lower-rung officials of BIS, small firm owners, technology suppliers, scientists and common consumers.
  • finding a solution to the problem of several public organisations/institutions at multiple levels for implementing standards and the lack of coordination among them.
  • introduction of better regulatory infrastructure and human resources to enforce regulatory standards.

The paper can be accessed here.

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