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Why do companies that submit to regulations abroad have a free for all in India? For a start, because it's simply not mandatory for them to do so. India has no regulation to control pollution from detergent use. Southey points out, "Because India does not have specific legislation or regulation to control the amount of phosphorus in laundry detergents, there has been no reduction even on a voluntary basis by the detergent industry."
The Bureau of Indian Standards (bis), in consultation with the industry, formulated standards for household laundry detergent powders (is 4955:2001). So a bis standard exists, but as this is voluntary, neither the big players like hll, p&g, Henko, Nirma nor even the smaller brands such as Fena or Ghadi have gone in for the same.
Even the bis label is basic, compared to the comprehensive and obligatory European Union Regulations on detergents. European regulation makes it mandatory for manufacturers to clearly state detergent content. The Unilever website that displays content for products sold in the eu is not obliged to do so in India.
As for dosage, the Indian brands do not deal with specificity. Most provide dosage information in terms of 'scoop', other mention random amounts, but none define the amount of clothes that can be washed with a specified dose. So confused consumers make their own choices. Gopal cautions, "Overdosing would be harmful since chemical concentration in wash water would be more." But neither the industry nor the government seems to be worried. The other problem is even the standard set by bis is really a product quality standard, not one that looks at environmental impact. Shockingly, it sets only a minimum target for levels of ingredients rather than stipulate maximum limits for a higher environmental standard of compliance. For instance, the concentration by mass of stpp is prescribed at a minimum of 9.5 per cent for grade 1 detergents. So is the case for total phosphates. This essentially allows the manufacturers to increase the concentration to any extent as per their requirements. Even the test for biodegradability (is 13933:1995) is not specific for various categories of surfactants. In any case, the bis norms are not foolproof. The standard for household laundry detergent powders describes detergents as "free flowing powder, free from unpleasant odour, possessing good lathering and cleaning properties." By these yardsticks, 'quick wash of hll', with its low foaming capacity, may not be a 'detergent'.
Unilever product, Via, and p&g brands Ariel and Ajax have opted for Sweden's Swan Ecolabel, a voluntary eco-labelling programme. But these companies are reluctant to adopt Eco Mark, India's voluntary eco-labelling scheme introduced in 1991 which included detergents as well. Making manufacturers and importers reduce detergent impact remains a non-starter as "none of the detergents sold in India have an eco mark label", rues M Q Ansari, senior scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Perhaps because, to get it, detergents had to be safe and sustainable besides being phosphate free and manufacturers had to disclose critical ingredients.
Why should toxins banned in other countries be allowed to enter India? Gopal argues, "Mandatory disclosure of ingredients should be the beginning of environmental regulations in India. The government should at least keep track of the entry of new chemicals and ensure that they are non toxic." Like Europe, which has reduced the per capita detergent consumption, India should also devise a way to reduce consumption. In Europe, to reduce consumption manufacturers have introduced tablet detergents which ensure precise doses as well as lower consumption. Dealing with eutrophication also demands efficient wastewater collection and treatment systems that can reduce nutrient loadings. Southey suggests, " As a matter of urgency the central government should develop a compatible and coordinated programme in concern with state governments to effectively control introduction of toxic materials." Ansari however, feels the drive to go for such standards can only come from consumer pressure. In other words, from us.