Fear was the key. And, by what the average tourist regarded as a defence against cholera, acquired snob value. A commerce built on fashion and fear had to succeed. So has the mineral water industry. This summer, the turnover has touched Rs.20 crore, with sales put at an awesome 2, 00, 000 cases (one case consists of 12 bottles). Two decades ago, no more than 100 cases were sold.
But for its size and each, it is still an unregulated industry. Dozens of big and small manufacturers flood the market with that they loosely claim its mineral water, but which is often little more than treated municipal water. Bisleri, leaders in one business (1, 20,000 cases), are lumped in this category. And the only Indian brand to figure in Maureen and Timothy Green’s yearly The good water Guide is Mohan Meakin’s Golden Eagle mineral water.
Why is it so?
Trouble actually springs from the absence of standards. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has still not set a benchmarked to determine what and isn’t mineral water. The senior BIS official classified: “We have already finalized a set of specifications and this will be announced soon. Producers have to adhere to this”.
But the official refused to divulge details or say when the rule would take effect. Expectedly, there are rumours at lobbies are at work to prevent or delay BIS from doing this. This may not be true. However, it is equally strange that the mineral water business is not bound by standards, even though it is almost three decades old.
It was in 1964, to be precise, that a certain Dr Rossi of Italy and his Indian partner set up the first bottled water unit in Thane near Bombay, branding the product, “Acqua Mineral”. This was taken over by the beverage biggie Parle, which came out with Bisleri in the early Seventies. Soon, Parle sold its franchise to private entrepreneurs in Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore-thereby, powering a revolution.
In addition, how it went! The white-blue PVC bottles marked “Bisleri-Acqua Mineral” were lapped up by the firangis who dreaded contracting water-borne diseases. They became a must too, at state banquets and at conferences. Bisleri began to be used in homes and soon enough, its success spawned a spurious market. Other producers entered the fray. Among the bigger ones:
Â· Golden Eagle was marketed in 1976.
Â· Officers Choice (from the UB group) came after a gap in 1988, as did Mr. PIK (of Pure Drinks).
Â· Pasic (manufactured by the Pondicherry Agro Industries Corporation) arrived in 1990.
Â· Gangotri (of Gangotri Minerals Private Limited) was released a little after Pasic.
Â· Himalayan Bliss Gangajal ( from Himalayan Minerals) hit the stands last year in June.
Each claimed to be better than the other was, but Bisleri struck to its number one position. It is still so. And yet, Bisleri is hardly the real thing. Says Ravi Singh, a mineral water expert and former consultant to Mohan Meakin: “Acqua Mineral is manufactured in Delhi from NOIDA water, which is then palmed off as mineral water”.
Parle’s managers in Bombay declined to comment even after being approached several times. But a senior official of Instant Food Products, holding franchise rights for Acqua Mineral disclosed what looks like half the story. “We bottle Bombay’s municipal water, which is purified by silver sterilizer, ozone gas and ultraviolet rays,” he said.
This means Acqua Mineral is anything but mineral water, “We have never claimed we manufacture mineral water,” ripostes the official at Instant Food. “What do you consider normal standards for mineral water?”
The BIS is coy about answering that. And the only places where an attempt has been made to define mineral water are in the United States and in the European continent (the major players in the $ 35 billion world mineral water market). In America, it is called “natural water” and the description is: “Bottled spring, mineral, artesian well or well water which is derived from an underground formation and is not derived from a municipal system of public water supply and which is unmodified by blending with water from another source or by the addition or deletion of dissolved solids, except as it relates to ozonization or equivalent disinfection and filtration.”
Europe for its part is governed by a still more elaborate prescription that recognizes five different types of mineral waters.
There are additional stipulations about bacterial content in the mineral water (certain microbes are banned, both at source and at the selling point) and certain conditions have to be satisfied before a manufacturer, either in Europe or America, can indicate things like “low mineral content”, “rich in mineral salts”, “contains bio-carbonate” etc. on the bottle.
The flouting of these regulations invites stiff penalties and governments in these countries closely monitor the production and sale of mineral water. France’s Perrier, Germany’s Appolinaris and Itally’s Ferrarelle, mighty manufacturers all, keep a very tight control on quality.
Everything that is forbidden abroad is carried out here. Anything goes. Pasteurisation, ozonization or ultraviolet treatment are commonplace in the country. While Bisleri’s Acqua Mineral is not even mineral water, there are some, which pretend to be: Gangotri, marketed by two enterprising brothers, V.P. Gupta and A.P.Gupta, and Himalayan Bliss Gangajal, from Himalayan Minerals.
“Gangotri,” says V.P.Gupta, “contains 200 mg of calcium, 100 mg of magnesium, 400 mg of sulphates and 45 mg of nitrates per litre, besides traces of silver and copper. And there is no bacteria because of the presence on minuscule quantities of radioactive material in it.” But doesn’t this alone make Gangotri carcinogenic? But Gupta ducks the question.
“Gangotri “says V.P.Gupta “contains 200mg of calcium, 100 mg of magnesium, 400mg of sulphates and 45 mg of nitrates per litre, besides traces of silver and copper. And there are no bacteria because of the presence of minuscule quantities of radioactive material in it.” But doesn’t this alone make Gangotri carcinogenic? But Gupta ducks the question.
Gupta claims, instead, that Gangotri has proven therapeutic properties, though what proof he has, he doesn’t show. Giving him competition is Himalayan Bliss Gangajal. Right now, both companies are fighting a messy battle. Each claims to have a production unit at an altitude higher than the other’s, in the upper reaches of the Ganges in the Himalayas. On a contour map, however, Gangotri’s claim would stick, with its source at a place called jhala at a height of 8,120 feet. (Gangajal has its sources at Shinj, at a height of 4,500 feet.). But that hardly prove anything. Both manufacturers filter the water output (a no-no in Europe) and in the absence of standards and an independent verification body, who is to determine which claim is bogus?
That fact, of course, extends to the whole industry, which is, at the same time, in a terrific hurry to become big. Three new products Silver Springs Mr. Pik and Officer’s Choice have appeared in as many years. And the contest became even keener. Recently Dadi Balsara, a non-resident Indian based Singapore, announced plans for Rs.100-crore, 100 % export-oriented plant in Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh. And Ravi Singh, himself, thinking of establishing a unit near there. However, nobody yet is concerned about quality.
Mineral water shops are what’s being set up, then. And what’s more, the bottles they are being peddled in – made of PVC have themselves been proscribed in Japan, Germany, Switzerland and several other countries. A top manager at Mohan Meakin confessed he consumed only Golden Eagle mineral water coming in glass bottles. And what he left unsaid was that the rest of the populace could jolly well drink from hazardous PVC containers.
Well, now you know.
Ketan Narottam Tanna/ New Delhi