Whenever the issue of how to end pollution is raised, it hits a block: technology. Take the case of air pollution: among other things, the issue boiled down to catalytic convertors, an imported technology. Now that the spectre of contaminated water stares us in the face, a question emerges: who's making moolah out of the muck? The familiar answer: companies that use imported technology to treat water. India faces today a double challenge. It is poor and it is polluted. So could there be indigenous innovation that cuts costs and removes modern toxins poisoning our environment? NIDHI JAMWAL searches for answers
The Mahajans, a family of four who live in Vasant Kunj, South Delhi, daily waste 240 litres of water to get 30 litres from their reverse osmosis (RO) purifier six times a day. "I bought the purifier thinking it will end all our water woes. It gives us clean drinking water but I feel guilty about the waste," says Meenakshi Mahajan. 'Experts' have informed the family that the wastage is quite normal for such water-cleaning gadgets.
"I first had a candle filter for Rs 600 but there were problems. I then bought a purifier with ultra violet (UV) technology in the mid-1990s for Rs 5,500, but I was not happy because I noticed a white layer on top of the purified water. I then started buying bottled water for Rs 50 per 10 litre," says Meenakshi.
Bottled water didn't seem safe so the family changed their device again. "I bought the RO purifier for Rs 22,000. We have to pay the company Rs 3,200 each year for maintenance," she says.
The total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water Mahajans drink is now 20 ppm (parts per million). In other words, the family is drinking water as pure as distilled water, but which is also shorn of any minerals, and so nutritive properties. Is this the best the Indian water treatment industry has to offer?
Govt can't clean, companies step in
Water treatment is an upcoming business in developing countries like India. As water gets more and more contaminated, treating it has become an industry. Delhi-based consultant firm EQMS India (P) Ltd estimates that India's environmental service market is worth about US $2.5 billion to $3 billion, of which treating wastewater (including sewage) alone can fetch US $1.5 billion (Rs 150 crore).
"Municipalities have failed to provide clean drinking water and our water resources are becoming polluted. Pesticides seep into groundwater, which is then supplied to households. We keep hearing of drinking water mixing with sewage. People do not want to take any risk and prefer treating water at their end," says Rajesh Sharma, managing director of Mumbai-based Ion Exchange (India) Ltd, one of India's largest water treatment company. Municipalities provide chlorinated water but this only takes care of bacterial contamination. The new threat to drinking water, however, comes from chemicals, pesticides and other toxic compounds. Municipalities don't check for these, and the guidelines they follow for water treatment aren't mandatory (see: Down To Earth, 'Colanisation's Dirty Dozen', August 15, 2003).
The unsafe water supplied by municipalities has brought great business to private companies, which offer all kinds of water treatment solutions. The total market for household water treatment is India is estimated to be Rs 700 crore (see graph on next page: Unorganised sector). A market very lucrative to multinational companies (MNC), which don't have a household water treatment market in their own countries. So, they make tie-ups with Indian companies. The deal is: MNCs provide the technology and Indian companies use it in their devices.
"We started in 1964 as the subsidiary of a UK-based company but by 1984 we diversified and became an Indian company. Today we offer all kinds of water treatment solutions," says Sharma. Eureka Forbes, which launched its Aquaguard Classic in 1982, used to import the devices but then started manufacturing them in India. But the technology remains foreign.
Watching the success of these companies, many new ones have joined the bandwagon. "The unorganised sector has about 200 companies which manufacture household gadgets for purifying water. Most of them have imported the technology and assemble the units here," says Ajay Popat, vice president, corporate marketing, Ion Exchange.
B K Agarwal, chief of operations at Delhi-based Triveni Engineering and Industries Ltd, says, "We import the technologies from our parent company, United States Filter Corporation, in the US and manufacture the devices here."
Ceramic-based candle filters, ultra violet disinfection, resin filters and membrane filters are some of the devices which these companies offer for clean water (see table: Pick your water cleaner). "Three years back, we launched RO-based filters as pesticides in water have become a big challenge. Pristine, a four-column filter based on RO and activated carbon, is able to rid water of such pollutants," claims Sharma.
Till now, treatment companies had never thought that they would have to deal with pesticides. Sharma says, "To be very frank, we had never tested if our products can deal with pesticide residues. It is only after CSE's report that we tested our Pristine filter." The tests in August 2003 found some reduction in levels of pesticides.
Indian Railways too claims that its bottling plant for Rail Neer -- bottled water served to passengers -- controls pesticides. "When we studied CSE's report, our first bottling plant for Rail Neer was ready, but we realised that pesticides were a big problem so we put another column of activated carbon at our plant," says S K Kaushik, director of finance, Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd (IRCTC) (see box: Pesticides: Rlys meets standards).
Companies claim membrane technology and activated carbon keep out pesticides and heavy metals, but experts would like to have concrete proof for that. "In the early 1990s, we tested candle filters and resin filters and realised that they disinfect water but don't remove pesticides. So, saying that these filters provide pure clean water is wrong," says Neeta P Thacker, deputy director of Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), a research laboratory of the Council for Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR).
"Theoretically, membranes can remove pesticides but no one can say for sure till a large-scale study is conducted. No one knows how pesticides react when they are in a mixed form in water. I do not know if one membrane can deal with all kinds of pesticides," says Thacker.
Sukumar Devotta, director of NEERI, and Thacker say research is needed on membrane-based filters and they are willing to do it. But companies claim they have their own studies and do not need a certificate from government institutes. But these studies aren't public, and the government hasn't set standards for these devices.
There is another concern: most membrane technologies remove the minerals required by the human body. Concerned over this issue, the Bureau of Indian Standards is debating whether to specify a minimum TDS along with maximum TDS.
Companies claim that the best membrane rejects 99.8 per cent pollutants and only a small fraction passes through. "So if the level of pesticide in water is very low, then the 0.2 per cent which beats the membrane does not matter. But if the water is highly contaminated, then even that 0.2 per cent could be very high," says Popat. Companies claim activated carbon traps the pollutants which escape the membrane, but experts demand studies to confirm this. And that cleaning costs a lot of water.
A five-litre RO filter rejects phenomenally high amount of water: 80 to 85 per cent. "This happens because the pump attached to the filter cannot generate the high pressure a membrane needs. And a good pump, costs a lot of money," says Popat. The RO system at the Rail Neer plant only wastes 20 per cent water because of its pump, which costs Rs 50,000. And most of these pumps are imported.
"These technologies are only delaying the problem by a few years. The pollutants remain in the environment. What we need to do is minimise use of toxic compounds and protect our water sources. Once water resources are polluted, it is very difficult to clean them," says V Ravichandran, director of Chennai-based Enviro Energy Systems.
In 1995, NEERI studied two RO-based desalination plants in Melasirupodhu and Sikkal villages of Tamil Nadu which had brought down the TDS in water from 5,300-8,500 ppm to less than 500 ppm. The study called Performance Evaluation of Reverse Osmosis Desalination Plants for Rural Water Supply in a Developing Country _ A Case Study came to the conclusion that "plants shut down due to inadequate and erratic power supply... and inherent delay in repairs due to lack of adequate infrastructure...." Consequently, the recurring cost of water production shot up to Rs 25 per cubic metre at Melasirupodhu and Rs 17.5 per cubic metre at Sikkal, as against the estimated cost of Rs 15 per cubic metre and Rs 11 per cubic metre respectively.
RO and activated carbon filters have other problems as well. They have to be regenerated and changed after some time. The smallest membrane could cost US $15 and largest about US $700. "Developing membranes needs stringent quality control and very good infrastructure. So, it's better to import because the government has recently lifted the duty on membranes," says Sharma.
Popat says that nearly 350 Indian firms supply activated carbon but the quality is so poor that his company prefers to make imports from Netherlands.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.