How pure are their claims?

Market for water purifiers booms, but consumers cannot be sure of quality in absence of regulations

 
By Bharat Lal Seth
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

How pure are their claims?

image Manoj Lodhiwal is the head salesperson at a household appliance store in south Delhi. Every morning as the storeowner performs puja, he examines how and where to display products. “The facade must remain stacked with home water purifiers; they are the hottest items,” Lodhiwal said. His store is in Mohan Singh market, an electronics and household appliance hub in Delhi. The frontage of most shops here display water purifiers—from low-cost variants priced at Rs 999 to the ones with more attractive features, worth Rs 50,000.

Industry analysts say over half a million households in the country purchase water purifiers every year. At Rs 1,500 crore, the market is growing 15-20 per cent a year. Sparkling pure water never looked so alluring. While corporate skirmishes have begun with new players entering the fray, health experts and consumer rights activists are worried about the lack of standards and regulations for water purifiers.

imageThe big rush

Till three decades ago most homes would either boil water or use drip candle filter to remove dirt and bacteria. Call it loss of faith in the municipal water supply system or changing attitude of people, costly and more sophisticated purifiers have replaced these. Eureka Forbes was the first to tap the market; it introduced Aquaguard in the 1980s. Aggressive marketing made Aqu­aguard a synonym for water purifier in India. The company claims it still dominates 70 per cent of the market. This is followed by Kent and Ion Exchange, which ushered reverse osmosis (RO) purifiers in the 1990s. In the past few years, just about anybody began to im­port RO membranes and pumps from South Korea or Taiwan and flooded the market with assembled water treatment devices. “Branded or unbranded, high-tech water purifiers are expensive. Only a select few in cities can afford them,” said Ramesh Kumar, salesperson at a household goods store in south Delhi.

It was not until early 2000 that companies realised they had left out 99 per cent of the country’s urban population, and that to further penetrate the market they needed low-cost purifiers.

imageHindustan Unilever (HUL) set the ball rolling in 2004 with the launch of non-electric storage purifier, Pureit, in Chennai. It cost Rs 2,000. The demand was overwhelming because Pureit does not require running water or electricity supply. Since then several new entrants have started to shake up the market, each offering a new technology at a competitive price (see tables).

In 2007, Fairey Ceramics, global leader in ceramic water filters, forayed into the Indian market. “Although candle filters are considered low on technology, our filters have a porosity of 0.5 micron and are impregnated with silver to inhibit bacterial growth,” said Mukul Jain, director of British Berkefeld, Indian subsidiary of Fairey Ceramics. The filter costs upwards of Rs 2,000.

image“Besides bacteria, purifiers should be capable of treating viruses,” said a spokesperson of HUL, adding that Pureit, which uses carbon filter and chlorine, eliminates both bacteria and viruses. In 2008, HUL pushed the sales of Pureit across the country by making it more affordable; the company halved the cost of Pureit to Rs 1,000 in December 2009. It now covers 3.5 million households in 1,500 towns. A few days later, Tata Chemicals, a new entrant to water purifying business, announced the release of its low-cost variant, Swach (Rs 999).

Analysts say the market for low-cost purifiers is growing at 40 per cent a year. And companies get innovative to woo the consumers.

Kent, for example, plans to open 200 exclusive stores in large towns and cities by December, which will have technical experts as salespersons. “When product innovations are numerous, companies need to be smart to create and retain customers,” said Mahesh Gupta, chairperson of Kent. The company will invest Rs 15 lakh on each store and hopes to generate monthly revenue of Rs 10 lakh with one-year break-even period. This is not the first time Kent, with an annual turnover of Rs 250 crore, is experimenting with marketing strategies. It was the first company to rope in filmstars to endorse its products. It has earmarked an advertising budget of Rs 30 crore for 2010-2011. A few major players followed suit, with Eureka Forbes hiring television actor Smriti Irani and Ion Exchange roping in actor Juhi Chawla to advertise its Zero B purifier.

Consumers taken for a ride?

A recent assessment by the National Institute of Virology in Pune found despite tall claims most purifiers sold across India—from the cheaper ones using disinfectants to the sophisticated multi-stage treatment devices—do not completely eliminate viruses like Hepa­titis E. The government-funded body that conducts research on communicable diseases and viruses evaluated eight water purifier brands. Only two passed the test, said researcher Vidya Arankalle, refusing to divulge the brand names.

Though certified labs in India can test purifiers for bacteria, manufacturers have to depend on labs abroad to test their product for virus elimination, said Arankalle. Ensuring the quality of water purifiers is therefore difficult, she said.

Consumer rights activist in Delhi Bejon Misra criticises low-cost purifiers that use chemicals like chlorine, brom­ine and iodine as disinfectants. “Since there is no regulatory mechanism in the country, manufacturers go in for chemical purifiers to keep rates low. They could have harmful effects,” he said.

Byproducts of chemical disinfectants are known as possible causes of cancer. “We must standardise the type of chemical used and its efficacy. For this, we can follow international best practices,” Misra added. The Bureau of Indian Standards has formed a committee involving water purifier industry bigwigs. The panel will meet in Delhi soon to discuss the nitty-gritty of framing regulation for quality of purifiers.

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