Why do restaurants, cafés and bars charge a steep price for bottled water?

I look at the waitress in disbelief. “We only serve bottled water. And only Qua,” she says, nonchalantly. One litre of Qua at the restaurant is priced at Rs. 200, which is more than four times its printed price (or MRP). “So there’s no regular water?” I ask. “No,” she states. Despite my friend’s obvious discomfiture, I hold my ground. “Is that even legal?” I enquire, genuinely puzzled. There’s a pause. She leaves, and returns with a jug of regular water.

Just to put this in perspective, a meal at this restaurant costs about Rs. 2,000 per head. We were already drinking cocktails at the vastly exaggerated prices we have come to expect and accept in India.

A mineral water bubble top holding 20 litres costs about Rs. 60. Assuming one glass is 250 ml, that’s about 80 glasses in all. Which means each glass costs the restaurant 75 paise, if they’re using bubble top water. Most restaurants use an RO (reverse osmosis water purifier) system, which will cost them even less.

We are fortunate enough to live in a country where small shop keepers put mud pots filled with cool, potable water outside their store fronts in summer for passers-by. Where peanut vendors, sandwich makers and tea shops offer you a glass of bubble top water, irrespective of whether you’re a customer or not. Where the first thing you offer any guest who comes home is a tall glass of chilled water.

Ironically, the worst offenders are invariably restaurants, cafes and bars flush with money. “The law says that you cannot sell anything at more than the maximum retail price,” says Justice (Retd.) Sampath K., who was president of the Tamil Nadu State Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission from 2005 to 2008. (Legally, the MRP is the maximum retail price allowed for a certain commodity, and is inclusive of all taxes levied on the product. It also includes the retailer’s profit margin.) “A restaurant buys bottled water in bulk. So assuming they get it at Rs. 10 a litre, and the price printed is Rs. 12, that means they are often selling at a 500 per cent profit,” says Judge Sampath. “It’s happening everywhere. The small guys get caught, and the rest get away. If a restaurant wants to sell dosas at Rs. 250, we can’t protest. But when they offer only bottled water well above MRP, the Government should take action.”

According to a Chennai-based restaurateur it comes down to paying for a service. “It’s true that you can’t charge more than MRP on a product. But if a waiter opens the bottle and pours it into a glass, then there is a service involved, and a restaurant can price it at whatever they want.” His policy is to give customers mineral water for free, as well as offer them the option of buying bottles priced at about Rs. 10 above MRP. “This is what most people do, because there is a cost involved for us too — in storage, chilling, serving etc. I’m not trying to make money from water, but I have to store it because about 10 per cent of my customers insist on buying bottles. So I give them that option.”

S. Saroja who handles the Complaints Cell for CAG (Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group: www.cag.org.in) says that although the MRP plus service debate is a legal gray area, restaurants should offer an option of regular water. Those that only offer over-priced bottled water, get away because no one lodges a formal protest, she says, adding that she hasn’t even got one complaint about water so far.

It’s not just a question of ethics. Practices like this force people to buy bottled water in a world that's steadily being choked with plastic. These bottles consume huge amounts of energy in production and shipping. They’re made from millions of tons of oil-derived plastics, mostly polyethylene terephthalate (PET). According to “The Water Project” (A non-profit organisation bringing relief to communities without access to clean water and proper sanitation) bottles used to package water take over 1,000 years to bio-degrade. They also estimate that three litres of water are used to package 1 litre of bottled water.

In the end, however, it comes down to common courtesy. Perhaps this is more of an emotional issue than a legal one. Whatever happened to Athithi Devo Bhava (Your guest is god)? A restaurant/café/bar that gives you no option but to pay four-five times MRP for a basic necessity feels too much like a schoolyard bully.

If it bothers you, the solution is simple. Vote with your feet. Walk out. Eat only at restaurants that treat you well.

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