Toxic truth?

RO companies are members of the organisation that declared Delhi’s water toxic. In an apparent conflict of interest, some of these companies are fighting an NGT order that prohibits the use of water purifiers in certain situations

The Bureau of Indian Standards is currently under the radar for an ambiguous tapwater study that rated Delhi as having some of the poorest quality tapwater out of 21 cities. Even as experts questioned the veracity of the study, Newslaundry has learnt that BIS counts among its members six companies that manufacture water purifiers. One of its members, Safe Water Network, is a trust funded by Reverse Osmosis (RO) companies like Honeywell and Tata Trust, and other corporate conglomerates like PepsiCo, Hilton Hotel and Kosmos Energy.

It doesn’t end there. These companies are part of a 30-member “Water Purification Sub-Committee” organised under BIS. BIS itself is responsible for the “standardisation, marking and quality certification of goods”. This sub-committee handles all “water-related issues” that come under BIS.

The study BIS conducted on the quality of tapwater is the first study of its kind that the organisation has carried out. Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Ram Vilas Paswan, had directed BIS to carry out the survey in line with the Jal Jeevan Mission announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which aims to provide tapwater to all households by 2024. BIS selected only 11 samples from households in Delhi to draw its conclusions.

Newslaundry accessed an RTI reply that confirmed some members of the Water Purification Sub-Committee. These are Hindustan Unilever (which sells RO brand Pureit), Eureka Forbes (Aquaguard), Ion Exchange (India) Ltd (ZeroB water purifiers), Usha Shriram Brita Pvt Ltd (which produces half-a-dozen brands of water purifiers), Whirlpool (Purasense water purifiers) and Kent. Each of these companies has two members in the sub-committee except Usha Brita, which has one.

These brands are big names in the water purifier business. They’ve roped in prominent names as the face for their brands, including actress and BJP MP Hema Malini (Kent), cricketer Sachin Tendulkar (Livpure), and actress Madhuri Dixit (Aquaguard).

The RTI asked for specific details on members of the sub-committee. One of the requests was: “Please provide a complete certified copy of the details/list of all the members of different committees of BIS pertaining to water and water purification equipment since the year 2010 till date citing the introduction of each member.’’

The RTI reply was issued in June 2017. According to official sources, the sub-committee still has the same members. Newslaundry reached out to BIS via email to confirm the current members of the sub-committee. The story will be updated if BIS responds.

But what exactly does this sub-committee do?

According to the RTI reply, it deals with “all water-related issues”. This clearly highlights the conflict of interest of having RO companies in a committee that is required to check water quality and water equipment.

This conflict of interest is difficult to ignore when it comes to the fact that some of these companies are fighting a case over a National Green Tribunal order that directed the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to ban ROs in areas where the tapped water supply is below 500 TDS (total dissolved solids). The order also directed the ministry to frame fresh guidelines for ROs to ensure minimum wastage of water.

The Water Quality India Association, a “trade association” that has most of these RO companies as its members, has filed a Special Leave Petition with the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the NGT order. This case is listed in the court for tomorrow. The entire situation becomes murky in the light of the BIS survey which declares Delhi’s water undrinkable.

Newslaundry reached out to the RO companies listed as members in the RTI reply. The story will be updated if a response is received.

Details of the NGT order

According to NGT, reverse osmosis becomes redundant as water supplied by authorities has already gone through a TDS check. “If you have been drinking RO water all your life, it is a complete waste, as you have not acquired any necessary minerals,” a retired official of the Central Pollution Control Board told Newslaundry.

In May 2019, in a case initiated by an NGO called Friends against the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the NGT instructed the ministry to issue appropriate notifications prohibiting the use of RO systems where TDS in water is less than 500 mg/l. Wherever RO is permitted, the order said, a requirement is laid down for the recovery of water to be more than 60 per cent. Further provisions were laid down for the recovery of water up to 75 per cent.

To end the argument on whether RO purifiers are necessary or if they waste water, the NGT also issued the following instructions:

– A proper notification or policy for a mechanism for public awareness on the ill-effects of demineralised water.

– A requirement to be laid down for the recovery of water wherever RO is permitted and the rejected water to be used for other purposes.

– The regulatory regime may ensure the regulation of the consumption and use of low TDS water by requiring manufacturers to maintain minimum TDS concentration to 150 mg/l.

– The enforcement of Extended Producers Responsibility by RO manufacturers for the disposal of cartridges and membranes, and requiring the manufacturers to provide proper labelling on the purifier specifying that the unit should be used if TDS is more than 500 mg/l.

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change sought eight months to implement the order. On November 4, the NGT categorically told ministry officials that the order must be implemented by December 31 — otherwise the salaries of the concerned officials will be discontinued.

Against this backdrop, the Water Quality India Association filed the Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court.

Interestingly, the Water Quality India Association has its own connections to UL India Pvt Ltd, one of the members of BIS’s Water Purification Sub-Committee. The association signed an  MoU with UL India which certified the association for water quality.

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