The BIS saga: Real intrigue

Published: Saturday 15 March 2003

February 09, 2003: bis says it will effect changes in packaged drinking water norms and follow European standards. Department of science and technology scientists confirm findings of the Centre for Science and Environment (cse). Union minister for science and technology Murli Manohar Joshi admits that bis norms are inadequate.

February 10, 2003: bis reiterates that it will adopt eu norms. It fixes the new maximum residue limit at 0.0001 milligrammes per litre (mg/l) for individual pesticides and total pesticide residue limit at 0.0005 mg/l. bis will also junk its earlier testing mechanism and adopt the capillary column method to detect pesticide residues. Union minister for food and consumer affairs Sharad Yadav emphasises the need for expeditious implementation of the new standards. No decision taken on the fate of existing stocks of packaged drinking water.

February 11, 2003: The Union food ministry contemplates withdrawing bis certification for newly manufactured packaged water products. National daily The Hindu reports that sales of bottled water have nose-dived 45 per cent since the release of the cse report.

February 12, 2003: The government identifies 32 pesticides and prescribes limits for their traces in packaged drinking water. Some of the pesticides included in the list are malathion, chlorpyrifos, fenthion, endosulfan and lindane.

February 13, 2003: bis does a volte-face, convenes a seminar of "scientists" and declares that bottled water in the country is "safe for human consumption". It dismisses the need for more stringent norms as "impractical and expensive", and claims that packaged water sold under its earlier norms conforms to World Health Organisation (who) norms. cse points out that the who guidelines cover only five of the 20 pesticides identified in its study and are silent on harmful pesticides such as chlorpyrifos, endosulfan and malathion.

February 14, 2003: bis takes a u-turn again and tells the packaged water industry to adhere to the stricter norms. New bottling companies henceforth have to obtain a no-objection certificate from the concerned groundwater board on the quality of water used.

February 15, 2003: Union health minister Sushma Swaraj announces that new stringent standards are likely to be effective from April 1. The Economic Times highlights the bis' wild swings.

February 17, 2003: Coke and Pepsi claim that their products meet the stringent European norms for bottled water.

February 19, 2003: Yadav withdraws certification of eight water-bottling units for flouting bis' production standards. Among them are Bisleri International's Bangalore unit and Pepsico India Holding's plant at Bharuch. The consumer affairs ministry also dispatches a missive to the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages plant at Khera and the Surbhi Milk Food plant at Kalol.

February 20, 2003: As we go to press, the issue is mentioned in the Rajya Sabha during the ongoing budget session of parliament. The opposition has asked government to "clarify its exact position" since "conflicting versions were being provided by the Union health and food ministries".

Watch this space for more on this intriguing drama...

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