Plastic water bottles: Why we stopped caring about municipal water
In the 20 years since the drought, private water suppliers have more or less replaced the city administration as the supplier for drinking water.
By S Gopikrishna Warrier
In the late 1980s, when I started working in New Delhi, train travel from Kerala was an exercise in national integration. We filled drinking water from the taps on the railway platforms in our green, blue, red and yellow plastic water bottles that had straws attached to the caps. We knew how water tasted across the country – in Vijaywada the water was sweet, Balharshah brackish and Nagpur not bad.
We waited near the doors of our railway coaches as they coasted into the station, rushed to the water taps, fought, pushed and elbowed to fill our bottles.
By the mid-1990s, this changed. The platforms were quieter. No fighting, no swearing. Water came to us in sealed bottles. In fact, we did not even need to wait for the station. Water came to us at any time of our journey.
We had to buy the bottles, of course. But as the years passed it became more and more affordable. The pain of parting with a 10-rupee note in 1995 is not comparable to giving rupees 20 today.
There was drought in Chennai in 1993, the year after I had moved to this city. Living in Ashok Nagar in the western part of the city we were supplied with water in tankers.
Younger and stronger then, I carried bright-coloured plastic pots filled with water up the stairs.
One of my friends living in upmarket Alwarpet informed me of the new system of water delivery in 20-litre plastic bottles. He explained that the margins were low in this business and it had to survive on volumes.
Within a couple of years the system had reached my part of the city. There was no shortage of demand volume and the model had thrived and worked. There were many vendors. Some who made true promises on quality and others, not-so-true.
The bottles steadily reached individual homes and apartment blocks. And in the 20 years since the drought private water suppliers have more or less replaced the city administration as the supplier for drinking water. We stopped asking where the water came from. We also stopped demanding potable drinking water supply from our corporation.
What we did not realise in 1993 was that this transition to purchasable water was far more epochal than we understood. We hardly realise it even today.
The moment the urban middle and upper-middle class could purchase bottled water they stopped questioning about the quality of urban and rural water supply. And with this, the feedback loop that makes the government work in a democracy has become weak with relation to drinking water.
We do not question our administrators, legislators and parliamentarians. We have accepted and resigned to the fact that the water in the taps is of poor quality, and if we need better water we need to buy it.
Pesticide residues in excess of the permissible limits were found in bottled drinking water samples in 2003 through the tests carried out by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi. The story created a national furore. Nobody was sampling water from the taps of cities and villages. Or, even if they did, their stories did not
It was not so just a couple of decades ago. In late 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi publicly reprimanded and sought punishment for Municipal Corporation of Delhi officials for the outbreak of cholera in Delhi’s slums. The media and the citizenry applauded.
Though may be extra-treated and boiled, in those days the water on prime minister’s table came from the same source that supplied to the slums. And so was the case with the journalists who reported the story, and those who read, heard and saw the news.
There was not much rain over Chennai in 2012. The string of cyclones from the Bay of Bengal, which totals as the monsoons for the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, had not delivered much. However, even with these small rains there was news about cholera and gastroenteritis deaths. Obviously the quality of the water in the taps was not of the required standard.
There are no Rajiv Gandhi-like policy makers asking questions, since they themselves drink bottled water and are unlikely to be worried about the quality of the liquid that flows through the taps. And we are unlikely to remind them. Bottled water has created the divide.
With the ready availability of bottled water, it has become even more difficult to see the ecological footprint of water that we are drinking. We do not know, or do not care to know, from where the water comes, and whether it is being tapped at the cost of the local residents. For instance, most bottling units that supply water to Chennai operate out of the narrow freshwater aquifer running adjacent to the coast south of the city.
Conflicts as at Plachimada near Palakkad in Kerala happened. The local community living below the Palakkad hills accused Coca Cola Company of extracting unsustainable quantities of groundwater for bottled water and soft drinks for urban consumers. Media picked up the story. Environmental activists joined the fight.
Starting August 2009, I was on a 30-month assignment in Cotonou city of Benin in West Africa. A former French colony adjacent to Nigeria, Benin is a poor country in which half of its 8.5 million population lives on less than two dollars a day. In Cotonou we bought a ceramic-candle water filter. We boiled tap water, passed it through the simple filter and drank.
In Chennai, in our emerging-economy India, we had thrown out our ceramic-candle filter nearly 20 years ago. We either drink bottled water or that drawn from a home-based reverse osmosis unit.
Perhaps all of us miss the elbow jab on the ribs while jostling for water on the Balharshah railway platform. That was the feedback that kept our tap water safe.
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