On May 20, the National Green Tribunal asked the central government to prohibit the use of reverse osmosis treatment systems in areas with total dissolved solids in water of less than 500 milligram per litre. Total dissolved solids, or TDS, is a measure of water quality; the lower the number, the purer the water. It held that RO systems demineralise water, making it harmful to drink.
They also waste most of the water they treat, the tribunal held, and asked the environment ministry to lay down for manufacturers that recovery of treated water from RO systems must be at least 60 percent, with the target gradually enhanced to 75 percent.
The ministry was told to carry out the directions through a notification, to be issued by December 31. It never did, despite the tribunal having warned that failure to do so would result in salaries of the officials concerned being stopped. The NGT heard the matter today and gave the government until March 23 to issue the notification.
Before the NGT heard the matter today, an official who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press, said the government might argue that it is still not convinced about the harm caused by RO systems and seek four more months to draft the notification and have it approved by the law ministry.
What the environment ministry won’t say is that its decisions are influenced by RO makers, as the minutes of a meeting its officials held with the Water Quality India Association on December 11 make evident. The association is an RO industry lobby. It opposed the NGT’s directions, claiming they were too stringent and instead discussed technological changes to RO systems that would supposedly reduce the wastage of water.
To get a sense of how influential the RO industry is, see their ads. They have roped in such celebrities as Bollywood stars Hema Malini and Madhuri Dixit, sporting icon Sachin Tendulkar, and even religious leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to convince the public that pure water only comes out of RO systems. “Kent deta hai sabse shudh paani,” as Malini declares in one ad. There is no credible evidence to support such claims, yet the Indian regulators have turned a blind eye to such ads.
“They come up with terms such as ‘healthy level of TDS’ and post the NGT order ‘Natural Mineral Rich Water’. It is completely misleading,” says Mayank Raj Mohan, an intervenor in the matter before the NGT. “The Ultra-filtration (UF) water purification process removes all bacteria, viruses, cysts etc from the raw water while RO process practically removes everything from the raw water making the purified water as good as distilled water”.
In June last year, Mohan had complained to the Advertising Standards Council of India about Kent’s “misleading ads”. The council found that Kent did not have credible evidence to back up its claims. Specifically, about the Kent RO being “number one”, the council said the company hadn’t even compared its system to those of its competitors. Same with the claim of producing “sabse shudh paani”, the purest water. That’s not all. Kent quoted WHO in some ads, but did not mention that it was not the World Health Organization. It was Women’s Health Organization, which the council said was not credible.
Another major player in the industry, Livpure, is also using misleading information to sell its RO system. It boasts of winning the Water Digest Award 2014-15 for the most “innovative domestic water purifier”. The award is given by the magazine Water Digest and, interestingly, has the water resources ministry as a sponsor.
Asked about the criteria for giving the award, Mohammad Asim, general manager of sales and marketing at Water Digest, said, “We cannot tell you what’s the exact method used. RO companies nominate themselves and we select from among them. When we realised that RO systems were on the radar, we dropped this category. Livpure got this award in 2014-15. Back then, the jury was different and so was the staff. So, I don’t know what the exact process was.”
A study titled “Health Risks from Drinking Demineralised Water, done by Frantisek Kozisek for the World Health Organization, notes that drinking demineralised water reduces our immunity. The harm, though, might not become apparent immediately but manifest over years.
In November, the Bureau of Indian Standards released a study showing that Delhi has the most toxic water in the country. All 19 samples collected from the city were found to have TDS in excess of the safe limit of 10,500 mg per litre. The RO industry used the study to sell its wares for purifying the “toxic water”. Not only that, the Water Quality Association offered the study as its main argument to challenge the NGT’s order in the Supreme Court. The court refused to stay the NGT order, however, and told the association to submit a final report defending its position to the environment ministry.
Turned out that the Bureau of Indian Standards committee which had approved the study comprised representatives of major RO companies.
In its final report to the ministry, submitted on December 2, the Water Quality Association provided several reasons for why RO systems should not be banned. Most interesting is that Indian consumers have grown used to RO treated water, so a complete ban on RO systems would damage their health.
Arguing the RO industry’s position, Ajay Popat, president of Ion Exchange, a water treatment company, said, “I agree that ROs remove minerals but minerals can be consumed by eating nutritious food. If water is harmful, which it is, it has to be cleaned. Wastage of water is taken into consideration by RO makers and will be reduced over time.
Asked about the conflict of interest in the Bureau of Indian Standards study, he said, “We have no influence as such. It is common to have all stakeholders in a committee.”
The environment ministry, meanwhile, is still “figuring out a solution”, said the official who spoke anonymously. “Discussions are going on. NGT can issue orders but we have to execute them with proper planning,” he added. “We cannot have a complete ban, but we can definitely come out with guidelines.”
The petitioners, on the other hand, would settle for no less than a total ban “considering the harmful effects” of RO systems. “RO water we consume is not only demineralised, it has a tendency to extract minerals from our body. “ROs used by big manufacturing industries throw out toxic water which seeps into the ground, harming agriculture and freshwater reserves,” said Sharad Tiwari, general secretary of Friends, an NGO based in Noida which filed the petition in the NGT. “RO does more harm than good.”
Update: At today’s hearing, the NGT gave the environment ministry until March 23 to issue the notification.