India's biggest experiment with bottled, drinking water is unfolding in some obscure villages close to the historic Jessore road in Bengal that leads to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Sourced from the Ganges that flows between the two nations – the river here called the Ichhamati which translates into the one who does whatever she desires – the purified water is sold for a pittance of 50 paise per litre bottle in a market where average rates hover between Rs 15 and Rs 20.
India's cheapest water, now sold at local levels, will eventually be marketed across the country by Sulabh International (SI), an NGO renowned for its sanitation drive and providing toilets in a little over two million Indian homes.
This is for the first time in India that water sourced from the country's most sacred river is being purified and sold in bottles.
"This is – in all senses – India's cent-less water," remarked SI chairman Dr Bindeswari Pathak, who is heading the project in collaboration with Paris-based organization 1001 Fontaines.
The pilot projects are operating in villages in North 24 Parganas, Murshidabad and Nadia districts, and each village has the capacity to produce 8,000 litres of potable water per day at a cost of 10 paise. Then, the water is sold at 50 paise after including other costs like distribution and storage. The installation cost of the machine comes to Rs 20 lakh, which is shared between the French organisation, Sulabh and the villagers.
Going beyond water from the Ganges that travels across almost 11 states before flowing into the Bay of Bengal, Sulabh has also tapped Bengal's countless water hyacinth-filled ponds and put the water through a four-stage purification process. Pathak knows his effort, as of now, is insignificant in a market worth over Rs 1,000 crore and growing at a whopping 40 percent rate, pushed by 1,200 bottling plans and 100 brands, but calls his efforts a giant move for the Indian water industry — words sounding as prophetic as the Neil Armstrong's "a giant leap for mankind" in 1969.
Sulabh deliberately started its operations in Bengal, a state where underground water is laced with high arsenic content. To start with, the plants – strewn all over the northern parts of the state – would produce a little over 50,000 bottles per month. This number is likely to double over the next six months.
The next step is Bihar, then Kerala and Tamil Nadu — states high on water bodies and accounting for one-third of the country's bottled water business. "We are drinking – for the first time in our lives – bottled, purified water from the Ganges and the ponds. This is almost like a miracle," says Laltu Rong, a villager who earns his bread as a mason.
Pathak says he knows the business of bottled water is built on the foundation of bad governance, inequity and blatant exploitation. In villages where Sulabh has set up its plants, villagers are over the moon. "The water is almost for free. There are many who have started selling the bottles in the local market for Rs 2 a bottle," says Abinash Gorgori, a retailer whose family has been into farming for three generations.
Pathak says he is aware of the sensitivities involved in drawing groundwater in India and how it can easily become a political issue, as evident in states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala.
"I am not drawing groundwater. I am relying on pond water, and water from the Ganges. I want these villagers to access clean drinking water," says Pathak.
In strictest terms, this is actually not his job. In India, providing safe drinking water is the state's responsibility. That the state is not doing its part is evident from the fact that over 1,600 Indians reportedly die every day because of waterborne diseases. Pathak knows he would eventually have to work out better margins for dealers, plan aggressive advertising and catchy slogans if he wants to take on the big players. "This water is for the poor Indian, not the well-heeled," he argues.
At some point in time, the product must travel to Indian cities, totally under control of big Indian and multinational brands. Pathak says he will still keep price the water at 50 paise a litre. Then, like the cola wars every summer, the country could witness the real water wars.