MUMBAI - India's fast-modernizing
society, benefiting from economic growth of close
to 9% a year, is caught up in a conflict over
access to a basic resource - water - that is
pitting Coca-Cola and rival bottlers of the stuff
against villagers and others who want their
activities more tightly regulated.
country's bottled water industry, part of a US$100
billion global business, has been growing at
triple the pace of the economy as a whole. As
consumers take advantage of portable potables,
residents in drought-prone areas feel their needs
are being shunned and officials warn of
over-exploitation of ground water resources.
On April 7, more than 1,500 villagers
defied a police cordon and
marched to Coca-Cola's bottling
plant in Mehdiganj village, Varanasi, in Uttar
Pradesh state, demanding that the company
immediately shut down its bottling plant. In
January, the New Delhi-based Energy and Resources
Institute (TERI) advised Coca-Cola to shut a
bottling plant in the drought-stricken state of
India's Ministry of Water
Resources has ranked 80% of ground water resources
in Rajasthan as "over-exploited" and nearly 34%
resources as "dark/ critical", the gravest ranking
across the country.
Millions of people,
both in rural and urban India, suffer from
inadequate or no tap water supply. Even parts of
the movie-stars' residential area of Juhu in
Mumbai, the country's financial capital, get a
mere two hours of daily water supply. The city's
Virar suburb gets 45 minutes. So bottled water is
much in demand by residents - even though the
businesses profiting from the sales are thriving
from access to public water sources.
just bottlers are involved. In south India,
thousands of fuel trucks converted to be water
carriers sell ground water to households and
establishments at about $10 for 5,000 liters. More
than 13,000 tankers carry water drawn from
farmland surrounding Chennai, according a social
activist R Srinivasan. He estimates a $148 million
tanker industry is cashing in on Chennai's acute
water scarcity. The story is replicated across
India, including in New Delhi.
demand for commercial water coincides with
plummeting ground-water levels, which dropped by
up to eight meters (26 feet) in the first seven
years of Coca-Cola's operations in India, from
1999 to 2006, according to India Resource Center,
an activist group, citing data from hydrograph
monitors of the government's Central Ground Water
Ironically, the 500-page TERI
report that urged closure of the Rajasthan
bottling plant was commissioned by Coca-Cola in
2006 to study allegations of pesticide residues in
its products. TERI found no pesticides in water
samples in six bottling plants it studied, but its
findings on water stress vindicated water
protesters and stunned Coca-Cola executives, who
have not contradicted the findings. Of the six
Coca-Cola plants surveyed in the study, three are
in areas suffering increased stress on
An undated statement on the
Coca-Cola India website states that the TERI
report confirms that the company meets Indian
regulations, while acknowledging that the report
identified some areas "where we can do better".
"As a result, we are strengthening our
plant siting requirements, our monitoring
capabilities for both rainwater harvesting and
wastewater treatment and our guidelines for source
protection and operating in water scarce areas,"
the statement said.
The site says
Coca-Cola, which reported a 19% jump in global
first-quarter net income to $1.5 billion, directly
employs about 6,000 people in India and indirectly
creates employment for more than 125,000 people.
Its Indian operations comprise 25 wholly
company-owned bottling operations and another 24
that are franchisee-owned.
70% of its net operating revenue from outside the
US, with growth led by Eurasia, in which the
company groups India with the rest of the landmass
east of the European Union to the Pacific,
excluding China and Southeast Asia. Eurasia's 16%
growth last year in unit case volume of the
company's products, including water, was the
fastest pace of Coca-Cola's six geographical
groupings, according to its web site. Net
operating revenues in Eurasia grew 24% in 2007, a
pace matched only by Latin America, and operating
income growth of 38% was more than double the
company's overall worldwide increase.
Coca-Cola is just one, if the most
prominent given its international stature, of
thousands of brands in India's $445 million
packaged water industry.
you come across in the bottled water business
would be underestimated," says Chandra Bhushan,
associate director of the New Delhi-based Center
for Science and Environment that campaigns to
protect ground water resources. Bhushan, writing
in the fortnightly Frontline publication in 2006,
said companies earn extraordinary profits by
selling water at 10 rupees (24 US cents) or more
per liter after a production cost of 25 paise, or
0.25 rupee per liter. The water is drawn mostly
from public sources.
of his article, the Indian government formulated a
draft policy to regulate commercial extraction of
ground water, Bhushan told Asia Times Online. Two
years later, the policy is yet to see daylight.
Bhushan estimates total annual bottled
water consumption in India had tripled to 5
billion liters in 2004 from 1.5 billion liters in
1999. Global consumption of bottled water was
nearing 200 billion liters in 2006, he says.
The anti-bottling protests in India echo
increased concern in Europe and the United States
over the proliferation of bottled water, including
the creation of billions of soon unwanted plastic
containers. As in India, protests in North America
focus on the source of the packaged water and how
bottling companies are grabbing what is seen as
publicly owned water then selling it back to the
Up to 40% of bottled
water comes from the same source as tap water, but
is sold back to consumers at hundreds of times the
cost, says the website of the North American
"Think Outside the Bottle" campaign.
"PepsiCo responded directly to our key
demands by agreeing to print 'Public Water Source'
on its Aquafina label. Coke has refused to follow
suit," said Sara Joseph of the Boston-based
Corporate Accountability International that runs
the "Think Outside the Bottle" campaign. Aquafina
is the top-selling bottled water brand in the
Joseph said the campaign
had "numerous Asian allies, particularly in India
where many communities are directly affected by
Coke's practice of siting bottling plants in
Think Outside the
Bottle seems to have created a template for
similar anti-packaging water movements globally,
with its campaign mobilizing students, religious
groups, restaurants and municipal leaders to
cancel bottled-water contracts and support better
municipal water supply.
appears to be taking a toll on bottled-water
sales," Joseph said. Denting the $11.7 billion
water-bottling industry in the US, the world's
largest, mayors in cities such as San Francisco
and Seattle have banned the purchase of bottled
water for government offices and public functions.
A similar mindset change seems to be
dawning in Europe. The London Evening Standard
newspaper ran a "Water on Tap" campaign in April
to have tap water available for drinking in city
restaurants and bars. The tabloid reported getting
support for its anti-packaged water campaign from
the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the
mayor's office, leading restaurants and chains
such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee and McDonald's.
Following growing pro-tap water consciousness,
bottled water sales in Britain dipped 9% in the
year to March 08, estimates London-based retail
Economists at the
California-based Pacific Institute that estimated
the $100 billion value of the global industry, ask
why consumers are readily paying for bottled water
typically costing a thousand times more per liter
than high-quality municipal tap water.
"Are consumers willing to pay this price
because they believe that bottled water is safer
than tap water?" Pacific Institute experts ask.
"Do they have a real taste preference for bottled
water? Or is the convenience of the portable
plastic bottle the major factor? Are they taken in
by the images portrayed in commercials and on the
Bottled water fills a void
created by government failure to address basic
services, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute
writes in its World Water report.
parts of the world, tap water is not available or
safe to drink," writes . "In these regions, the
failure of governments to provide basic water
services has opened the door to private companies
and vendors filling a critical need, albeit at a
very high cost to consumers." The institute
reasons that governments should tap into spending
on commercial water by consumers to secure funds
to provide safe water at fraction of the cost.
Gigi Kellett, US national director of the
Think Outside the Bottle campaign, argues that
demand for bottled water is due to industry
creating "a market by casting doubt on the quality
of tap water, when in fact bottled water is
subject to far less scrutiny and often comes from
the same source".
Acceptance of the supposed
purity of bottled water is being undermined in
India by the government Health Department's
warning of pesticides and contaminating organisms
being present in some bottled products.
The notion that commercial products taste
better has also taken a knock from Decanter, a
British magazine, which last December featured top
wine tasters testing unmarked samples of water
from 22 brands, along with tap water from utility
company Thames Water and water from the Decanter
office water cooler.
The Decanter panel
ranked serviced tap water third in the list, above
the world's leading brand, Evian (15th), and the
world's most expensive bottled water 420 Volcanic
(18th) and Bling H20 (22nd out of 24 brands
tasted). 420 Volcanic sells at $99 a liter, and
Bling H20 (in Swarovski crystal-studded bottles)
at $79 a liter. Decanter editor Guy Woodward said
the tasting test exposed the "outrageous" prices
of mineral water.
Whatever the price of
bottled water, people in India appear willing to
pay for the commercial product while turning their
backs on the country's ancient methods of cooling
and purifying water. Stored in earthen pots, for
instance, it is not only refreshingly cool and
tasty but is said to become bacteria-free. Yet the
common summer sight of water matkas
(earthen pots) in public offices and spaces is
giving way to upturned plastic drums dispensing
But not even a severe
water shortage in the national capital has moved
the central government to regulate excessive
ground water extraction by business corporations.
To the contrary, the state government of
Uttar Pradesh arrested 2,000 farmers in the
drought-stricken Bundelkhand region in April 6 for
"stealing" water from a public canal.
M regularly drinks water from taps in
various cities and towns across India, and as yet
reports no lethal side effects.)