This Indian monsoon the cola giants have faced the heat. Ironically the heat came from the waters, and that too from underground. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found that 12 brands of both Coca Cola and Pepsico contain harmful pesticides that "are odiously similar to bottled water", which the Centre’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory had also investigated earlier this year.

At the heart of the problem that the two MNCs face – first with their bottled drinking water and now with the soft drinks – is their unavoidable use of and reliance on the ground waters in India. Indeed the fact that the quality of ground water which forms the main raw material for a soft drink varies from place to place makes a mockery of any talk of an identical international standard of these soft drinks. The fact that in India 90% of the drink – the ground water – is not tested as there are no norms for it, did not exactly motivate the Cola companies to carry out all the tests with the due diligence.

While water pollution has been the source of trouble for the two companies, they are also increasingly seen as major contributors to ground water depletion, especially where their bottling plants are located. Village panchayats in Kerala’s Palakkad district had recently cancelled the licences for the Pepsi plant and the Hindustan Coca Cola plant under their jurisdiction, citing 'over-exploitation of water resources', leading to protracted and pending litigation in the Kerala High Court. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board also confirmed the toxic nature of sludge generated by the Coca Cola plant in the area. Likewise, villagers of Kala Dera near Jaipur had complained earlier this year that ever since Coca Cola set up a bottling plant in the village, all wells and ponds in the area have dried up and thus they have shot off a memorandum to the Chief Minister asking that the plant be shifted. Elsewhere villages at Wada Taluka in Thane district in Maharashtra had accused Hindustan Coca Cola, saying that the area's water table has dropped as a result of company’s wells.

The cola companies are also increasingly being seen as major contributors to ground water depletion, especially where their bottling plants are located.
All this is precipitating some uncomfortable situations for the multinationals. In Thane villagers are asking why the MNCs cannot create its own water resources; the Government in Jaipur admits that it was a mistake allowing a water-guzzling plant in Kala Dera. In some of these cases - as in Kerela and with the recent CSE expose - the cola companies are recently getting clean chits from the Government and some 'independent' agencies, giving them some respite from the heat – in this monsoon itself.

Specific cases aside, let us not miss the bigger picture here. Whether it is the pollutants inside the bottles, or depletion of water in manufacturing, the present Cola controversy - like most controversies before – seems to be ending up with mere scandalizing of public opinion. The second point that the CSE makes in its recent revelations should not be lost sight of. The findings should be utilized to bring in the much-needed policy correctives and legal reforms.

As Sunita Narain, Director of the Centre points out “Pesticide, not bottled water or soft drink is the point. It is imperative to have a policy for safe use of pesticides”. Besides, make no mistake that even assuming that the bottles have pesticides in them, the wrong doers can escape the law. Beverages are outside the purview of the Industries (Development And Regulation Act and even the prevention of Food Adulteration Act and the Rules. Then there are voluntary norms like those of Bureau of International Standards (BIS) which are unenforceable, besides being applicable only to packaged water and not cold drinks. The Fruit Products Order 1955 requires that water used for beverages should be ‘potable’, though it does not clarify what the word potable means!

That precisely is the problem that plagues water law, and particularly the ground water law regime in India. The mandate of the law is not clear and the provisions of the law are ‘delightfully’ vague. This, despite the fact that the Supreme Court and High Courts have been repeatedly saying that pollution-free water - and specifically access to clean drinking water - is a fundamental right of every person in the country. Notwithstanding this, the operative law – because it is the specific statutes more than the Constitution that runs the Government machinery – continues to be soft and feeble.

That also explains why only a few states in India have specific ground water legislation. This too has been done in restricted areas, for limited purposes and with minimal implementation. These state laws also seek regulation of water extraction mechanisms like restricting the number of wells/bore wells/tube wells in declared ground water conservation zones or scarcity areas, rather than regulating the amount of water withdrawals. Weak laws in this area reflect a total absence of political and legislative will. Not a surprise therefore that a model Ground Water Bill that the Centre has been circulating to the states for over three decades now, has not yet taken the shape of law.

they are also increasingly being seen as major contributors in ground water depletion especially where their bottling plants are located
Having said all the above, there are still larger questions begging for right answers. Even assuming that relevant changes in specific sections and rules are made and are in place, would India be a drinking paradise? How far can a 'command and control' policing approach solve the problems of water pollution and depletion while teaching the errant industries to behave? Does the Kerala’s Panchayat notice and cancellation of licence of a Cola giant show the way? Note that a recent Working Group of Union Ministry of Water Resources has itself suggested that the village community or the Gram Sabha approve the use of Ground Water for sale.

Should we wait for the ideal regulator or should we invoke the regulator in us? And most importantly, how long can we keep talking about people-oriented water management, while first keeping the people away from water management and then making those very people pay for water mismanagement?