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Vol. XXXIII No. 4, June 1-15, 2023

Authorities clamp down on unsafe drinking water, seal six packaged water units

-- by A Special Correspondent

A spike in complaints regarding the poor quality of water cans supplied to residents in different parts of the city prompted authorities to investigate the matter. Following a joint inspection of 19 packaged drinking water units by officials from the Food Safety Department, GCC and CMWSSB, authorities have sealed six packaged drinking water units for poor manufacturing processes and selling without a license. The condition of these units is reportedly appalling – in a quote to, Chennai’s Food Safety Officer P. Satheesh Kumar said that he was shocked to find a dead pigeon in one of the labs in North Chennai.

Unfortunately, unsafe water is a seasonal bane that the city faces every year. Chennai’s water levels dip every summer, obliging most households to turn to packaged water to meet their needs. To protect the consumer, the BIS – Bureau of Indian Standards – has a diligent testing mechanism in place to award a license to packaged water manufacturers. In a quote to the Times of India, E. Saravanan, the General Secretary of the Greater Tamil Nadu Packaged Drinking Water Association said, “A manufacturer pays up to 1.25 lakhs for a license and if they subsequently fail in tests, they pay up to Rs. 40,000 in test charges. Vendors who fail don’t renew their license, but operate illegally from their existing plants.” In addition to the BIS, a license has to be obtained from the Food Safety department as well, which mandates guidelines per the Food Safety Act. For example, cans must be washed thoroughly before filling them with water, and consumer information such as the name of the manufacturer and content quality must be clearly displayed on the packaging. Illicit packaged water does not meet these standards, either.

During the summer, the city’s daily consumption of packaged drinking water reportedly touches 12 lakh bubble top cans. Operators duly registered with the BIS are able to meet consumer demand amounting to only 7 lakh cans; the rest of the supply is met by illegal operators looking to make a quick buck. The result? The city’s packaged water supply is flooded with poor-quality cans that are damaged; they bear neither brand stickers nor ISI marks or, in some cases, have a suspicious profusion of stickers. Such cans are sold for twenty, thirty rupees each to unsuspecting consumers, who take the water back to their households for consumption. 

Concerningly, such cases are reported year after year with alarming regularity. May 2019 saw government officials rooting out a large-scale fraud through the inspection of cans ferried in trucks and vans through the city, and it was just last year that media reports broke out revealing that one in three samples of packaged drinking water in the State was found to be unsafe. The Food Safety Commissioner had then issued a warning to packaged drinking water companies to follow the norms but clearly, the menace has endured.

Given that the city has a history of dealing with illicit packaged water, it stands to reason that prevention is a better tactic than corrective measures. However, the scale of the problem suggests that inspections are either conducted on a shockingly infrequent basis or carried out poorly. The question arises too as to why the civic authorities don’t seem to be taking steps to address the considerable shortfall in water supply from BIS-registered operators – after all, this is the vacuum that illegal manufacturers come in to fill. There is much that can be done too to educate the consumer – for instance, raising awareness on recognizing illicit water cans vis-a-vis branded ones or encouraging water safety norms such as boiling water before consumption. 

The greatest impact, however, will come through the implementation of robust water treatment systems that deliver potable tap water to households. It isn’t an impossible task, for metros like Mumbai have been successful at it – the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai reportedly tests 100-120 samples of water collected from different areas on a daily basis and provides clean tap water to its residents. Some may argue that Chennai’s own piped water is treated per safety standards, as well, but the very fact that consumers depend so heavily on packaged water points to a problem. Either the quality of tap water is inconsistent or low, or the authorities need to build more transparency into the safety checks they follow in treating the city’s water. At the end of the day, it is clear that the scourge of unsafe packaged drinking water cannot be quelled merely through raids and reactive measures.

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