Companies that use the natural resource for profit pay no charge or royalty for the raw water they use — only a nominal ‘cess’ varying from State to State (a few paise per kilolitre).

There are no credible data available in the country on the quantum of the groundwater, surface or spring water that is being extracted and used by the bottled water and beverages industry, even in the authorised sector.

Companies that use the natural resource for profit pay no charge or royalty for the raw water they use — only a nominal ‘cess’ varying from State to State (a few paise per kilolitre).

Officials admit to proliferation of unauthorised manufacturers who are selling “just about any water — be it rainwater, river or nallah water” as ‘treated’ bottled water under different brand names.

The Water Resources Ministry puts the onus of ensuring quality (including display of composition of the packaged natural mineral or drinking water) and quantity on the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), which comes the Department of Consumer Affairs. Sources in the Ministry also point out that although “municipal water is cheapest and assured in quality” water pipelines cannot be laid in all nooks and corners of the country. Places devoid of municipal water supply are increasingly getting dependent on water tankers or bottled water for drinking purposes. The situation worsens during drought months.

Of the 5,842 blocks assessed in the country in 2009, 802 were over-exploited for groundwater; 169 blocks were critical; 523 were semi-critical; and 4,277 were safe.

Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) Chairman Sushil Gupta says the Board does not give permission for groundwater extraction in over-exploited zones. In critical areas, permission is given for extracting 50 per cent of the water the company can recharge; in semi-critical, excavation can be done equivalent to 100 per cent rechargeable water; and in safe zones 200 per cent of rechargeable water can be extracted.

The BIS has to ensure that any company or individual seeking quality certification for using groundwater as raw material has a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the CGWB. It also has to ensure compliance with physical, chemical and microbiological standards. But there is no systematic monitoring to ensure that excess quantities are not extracted and standards are being maintained as is obvious from the numerous brand names flooding the markets. The BIS could not be reached for comment.

The 14 States that have adopted the Central Model Ground Water Regulation Bill are free to give permission to beverages and bottled water companies for extraction of groundwater and more often than not, with little monitoring. For the States that do not have the Act in place, permission is taken from the Centre. Again, no permission is required or taken for drawing river, canal or natural spring water for bottling or use in soft drinks.

Union Secretary for Water Resources S.K. Sarkar feels the problem should have a long-term solution like mapping of aquifers to set limits on how much water can be extracted, at what place, with what recharge, at what distance between wells and at what depth.

The 12th Five-Year Plan will see three-dimensional aquifer mapping and participatory management to decide how much water can be allocated to various users, including industry.