Cobrapost takes a look at the water packaging industry across India and finds that barring two dozen companies all are exploiting groundwater to the hilt for profit but failing in discharging their obligation: recharging the aquifers. As a result wherever these operate, they leave the local community bereft of their share of water as the water table recedes deeper and deeper

New Delhi: In the past three years, the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) has allowed 144 companies, both MNCs and home-grown, to extract groundwater for free and sell it to us at a high premium. Of these, however, only 24 companies are discharging their basic obligations of recharging the aquifers and recycling the wastewater that is produced in the bottling process. While the bottled water industry has crossed Rs. 1000 crore mark in terms of annual revenues that it generates out of selling groundwater, hitting an annual growth rate of 40–50 percent, water tables in areas where these companies operate have depleted as rapidly as these are filling their coffers, as the Cobrapost enquiry conducted by Correspondent Md. Hizbullah finds. The fear expressed over the past many years by environmentalists and public-cause activists that overexploitation of groundwater would endanger the availability of water to a sizable human population in the country is real as a ground check by Cobrapost in Delhi NCR, where some bottling units are exploiting groundwater, shows.

These 144 companies were issued NOCs for extraction of groundwater by the Central Ground Water Authority, under the Ministry of Water Resources, which is charged with the management of groundwater resources across the country and frames guidelines for groundwater use and replenishment. These companies operate their bottling plants across Haryana, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Assam, Bihar, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. Of these, 29 plants operate in Assam alone, 28 in Uttar Pradesh, 13 in Andhra Pradesh, 10 in Haryana and 8 in Maharashtra. Only 24 of these companies claim to have taken measures to recharge groundwater.

When these companies were granted NOC by the CGWA, they were asked to recharge a certain amount to groundwater every year. However, when Cobrapost did run a check on few of such bottling plants, according to the information culled from documents provided by CGWA, it found that none of these was contributing even a drop let alone the amount they were supposed to recharge every year.

PepsiCo India, Satharia Village, Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh

The American food and beverage major has a strong monopolistic hold over India’s soft drink and bottled water market. Producing popular brands like Slice, Mirinda, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, 7Up, Tropicana, Nimbooz and Dukes and Aquafina, PepsiCo draws 648000 cubic meters of groundwater every year. However, the company has not recharged ground water, although it is supposed to recharge a total of 83,778 cubic meters of water every year.

PepsiCo has two vendors, Nectar Beverages, which runs a bottling unit at Saidapur village in Dharwad, Karnataka, and Vishal Beverages, which runs a bottling plant at Nithari, Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Nectar Beverages and Vishal Beverages draw 13800 and 7200 cubic meters of groundwater a year, respectively, yet none of them contributes even a single drop to recharge the aquifers.

Nimbus Beverages        

This company has two bottling plants, one in Greater Noida, Gautam Budh Nagar District, and the other in Ramnagar, Chandauli, Uttar Pradesh, extracting 7500 cubic meters and 7000 cubic meters of groundwater every year, respectively, and both have failed to do anything substantial to fulfill their obligation.

SMJ Beverages Asia Ltd.

An MNC based in Trinidad and Tobago, SMJ Beverages Asia, operates a plant in KIADB, Hoskotaka, Bangalore, extracting 7800 cubic meters of groundwater every year. Although the area falls under theoverexploited category, according to CGWA, the company has failed to recharge even a single drop.

Maple Beverages, Churli-Patan Village, Kishangarh, Ajmer, Rajasthan

Its plant draws 11500 cubic meters a year from an area categorized overexploited by CGWA, yet the company does not bother to recharge the aquifers and make the groundwater sustainable.

Pushpam Foods & Beverages, Borate Wasti Village, Pune, Maharashtra, produces packaged water and soft drinks. Operating in a semi-critical area, the company extracts 37500 cubic meters of groundwater every year, without replenishing even a single drop.

HM Foods & Minerals, Jawaharpur village, S.A.S Nagar, Mohali, Punjab, draws 3600 cubic meters of groundwater from a semi-critical zone, but does not replenish the same.

DPG Beverages, Hasanpur Village, Karnal, Haryana, one of the leading brands in packaged drinking water in the state. It draws 2755 cubic meters of groundwater from an overexploited area. However, the Purewell brand-owners do not bother when it comes to discharging their obligations.

Rose Valley Industries, Madhuban village, West Tripura district, is another bottler that does not bother to replenish even a drop out of 5572 cubic meters of groundwater that it extracts every year to sell it off in various packaged forms.

RCD Beverages, Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, selling bottled water branded as Pure Sip has not done anything to meet its obligation of recharging the groundwater table ever since it was granted NOC April 15, 2011 for extracting 6000 cubic meters a year.

Pyramid Drinks, Ukkar Wahi village, Nagpur district, Maharashtra, with a tie up with established brands like Aquafina, Sabols, Bisleri, Kinley and Kingfisher has done little to recharge underground water since December 3, 2012, the day it was granted NOC to draw 15000 cubic meters of groundwater a year.

Khaitan Beverages, Surajpur, Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, also draws 60m3 of ground water every year 19980 cubic meters of groundwater every day July 4, 2013, without helping aquifers to recharge.

Rathi Enterprises, Sindhi village, Wardha, Maharashtra, has been extracting 18250 cubic meters of groundwater a year since June 2011, with no amount of groundwater recharged.

Yashomala Farming and Tourism, Keledadi-Tareghar village, Raigad, Maharashtra, has a water packaging unit, extracting 17850 cubic meters of groundwater every year since August 2012 but has failed to do anything to recharge.

BLL Enterprises, Nilakuthi village, Imphal East district, Manipur, extracting 39635 cubic meters of groundwater every year, has not recharged even a single drop out of 5496 cubic meters it was supposed to recharge every year.

GD Foods & Beverages, Senchua Bebejia village, Nagaon district, Assam, another water packaging unit, extracts 40000 cubic meters of groundwater every year, without recharging a single drop.

Sona Sati Organics, Rajapatti Kothi village, Gopalgang, Bihar, has been extracting 307200 cubic meters of groundwater every year without discharging its obligation.

KK Beverages, Baridua village, Ri-Bhoi district, Meghalaya, runs a water packaging unit extracting 19095 cubic meters of groundwater every year since March 2014 with no recharge.

Cobrapost sent these companies a questionnaire asking them if they had taken any measures to recharge the aquifers, thus to sustain the groundwater levels. PepsiCo replied and told to get back but never did. Only Yashomala Farming and Tourism claimed to have constructed earthen dams to harvest rainwater.

The impact of such unscrupulous exploitation of groundwater is being felt in areas where these plants operate. For instance, in Nithari village in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, where Vishal Beverages runs a bottling plant for PepsiCo, the water table has receded to about 180 ft making it difficult for the community to access the most readily available water source. Ironically, this area has been categorized by the CGWA as safe for groundwater extraction. Similarly, in Roza Yakubpur, Kasna and Surajpur where such bottling plants operate, water table has receded to more than 180 ft. “Earlier I would get about 1.25 litter of water in a single press of hand pump, now it has reduced to 500 ml,” rues Rajbir Singh, a businessman from Kasna.

Some of the bottling plants Cobrapost investigated fall under semi-critical and overexploited zones, according to the classification of CGWA, which simply means that when safe zones can witness this kind of drastic drop in their water tables, then groundwater in semi-critical, critical and overexploited zones may perish altogether in near foreseeable future if extraction of groundwater by these companies is allowed to continue unabated.

Cobrapost took out only these few companies for example, although there are more than 1200 companies operating across the country, if reports in media are to be believed. The companies Cobrapsot chose exploit groundwater to such extent a year that more than half of Delhi households can get 700 litres for a day, then it is anybody’s guess how much all these legal or illegal companies are exploiting. If we put up a rough estimate of the water these companies exploit together, Delhi can be rid of the perennial shortage of water for all times to come.

Demanding strict action and a heavy penalty, RTI activist N.K. Tondon says, “These (multination and India) companies are exploiting unscrupulously the groundwater reserves of many million years and thus are endangering [the survival of] our coming generations, and our political leadership and governments will do nothing, although they know what is happening around.”

It was upon Tandon’s application that the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) came out with a list of 144 companies which have been given NOCs to extract groundwater for sale but have done little to recharge the water tables. Cobrapost decided to investigate the case further and found almost all companies barring a few were indeed doing nothing to discharge their obligation.

In a country like India where rains are only seasonal hardly lasting about four months, water needs of a large section of population and agriculture are catered for by groundwater, and how its overexploitation for private benefit is affecting the community is an open secret. Giving an example of where this is leading an upscale township like Gurgaon, C. K. Varshney, former dean and professor of ecology, School of Environmental Sciences, JNU, says: “Groundwater is an assured supply but unfortunately it is decreasing and decreasing very fast. In fact, in Gurgaon the groundwater is a very precarious problem, and the most serious and devastating effects of ground water fixation can be seen in California.” No surprise then that the local government of the city of San Francisco in the US state of California has banned the sale of bottled water making drinking water freely available to their citizens. Almost half a decade back, a small town in Bundanoon, New South Wales, Australia, had banned the sale of  bottled water altogether. But in India such political will is hard to come by particularly at a time when private interests are calling the shots even in sectors like water. This is borne out by the fact that some of the rivers have already sold out to private companies by various governments.

These facts make it clear that the Central Ground Water Authority has done little to monitor these companies which are flouting the condition upon which they were granted NOC to extract groundwater. It is high time the CGWA pulled its act together in larger public interest and took strict penal action against these erring companies.

Known the world over as Waterman, magsaysay award winner Rajendra Singh has a piece of advice if the political leadership of the country cares to listen: “All the governing bodies of India such as the central government, state government, village panchayats, municipal bodies etc. who are responsible for protecting, re-framing and implementing laws for the social benefit must together make laws concerning the ground water storage, proper recharging of the aquifers, so as to increase the water level of our earth.” It was time we did “the demarcation, notification and registration of available water resources” for the arrest the worsening situation.