Politics of bottled water

Bottled water has started ruling the world and India has not escaped its onslaught. 
In fact, the extent of the use of bottled water in a society today could be taken 
as a measure of both its affluence and its overall ignorance, 
writes P M Bhargava

February 1972. I arrive in Paris on a Eleanor Roosevelt International Cancer Research Fellowship Award with my wife, 11-year-old daughter, a niece of the same age, and a six-month-old son, to spend a year at the Institut du Radium founded by Marie Curie. Since the fellowship was substantial, a luxurious (by our standards) apartment had been rented for us at Palaiseau near Paris.                                                                                                                                                            

         When we arrived in the apartment from the Orly airport, we were most appreciative of our hosts putting enough provisions for us there to last a week. This included a couple of dozen bottles of Evian, the now world-famous French bottled spring water. This was our first major encounter with bottled water.                                                                                                       
        As water is our national drink and we were all very fond of it, we would pour out a glass of water at the slightest pretext, often take just a sip or two and confine the rest to the wash basin - exactly as we were used to doing at home. Between four of us, the two dozen bottles lasted barely a couple of days. We soon realised that a bottle of water was just as expensive as a bottle of Coca-Cola or cheap wine, none of which we would have treated as we treated Evian.
                                                                                                                                                                                                    In spite of being handsomely paid, I found that on account of our special relationship with drinking water, we were heading for a financial crisis. So we investigated why could we not drink tap water which no one in Paris seemed to drink. First, there were vague replies - too much iron in it, or it was too hard. But the most persistent argument was that every one in France drank only bottled stuff!  

         When we persisted in finding out the truth, we discovered to our great joy that the tap water in France was perfectly potable and ideal for us. We heaved a sigh of relief. If the French opted for Evian or Vichy (water from sulphurous springs of Vichy) or Perrier (naturally carbonated water from springs), it was their choice and they were welcome to do so. We were content with tap water.

         Initially, when we went to a French restaurant we assumed that we had to pay for our national drink as everyone else did, but we soon discovered that according to French law, the restaurants were obliged to give us tap water (eau natural) if we asked for it. It was another matter that they always looked at you with disdain if you asked for tap water for you paid nothing for it.

            Till the late 1970s - bottled water was virtually unknown in Britain and in the US. In fact, one of the great joys of going to a restaurant - five-star or no-star - in the US then was that you were greeted warmly with a glass of free ice-cold water.

The situation is very different today. Bottled water has started ruling the world and India has not escaped its onslaught. So we have the following kinds of bottled water available around the country:
(a) Bottled dirty water
(b) Bottled tap water
(c) Bottled tap water which has been put through an appropriate filter
(d) Bottled spring water

The first one is dangerous. The second and the third one are fine and indicative of affluence amongst those who buy it; there are always people around who would take delight in paying for what comes free for the less affluent ones.
The last category - the bottled spring water, if it is really collected directly from the spring without a touch of human hand - as is done in the developed countries - is generally much purer than the good, normally potable tap water, even if it has been filtered through something like Aquaguard. And I am using the term "purer” particularly in respect of microbial contamination. In fact, spring water if collected directly as is the case with Evian or Vichy is virtually sterile.

What is unfortunately not often realized is that man has evolved to face low levels of infection all the time. Such continuous infection, to which we are constantly exposed, keeps our immune system active and alert so that when we face slightly larger doses of such infection which would cause disease in those who have never faced the low levels of infection in their earlier life, it would not even be noticed by our bodies as our immune system would take care of it. It is for this reason that when we (I mean most of us, of the less affluent variety) travel through India, we generally do not get an upset stomach, under conditions where a person from the US or Europe would generally fall sick. Our immune system has been kept well oiled and working through constant exposure to low levels of infection, partly through good tap water, while theirs has been in limbo. After all, one of the functions of extreme affluence is to curtail your freedom, for example by total dependence on help even to carry one's own hand-bag or drive one's own car.

In fact, many studies done in the last three decades have established that Americans over 50 have a depleted immune response. Although the reasons are not fully understood, it is very likely that it is so because Americans have now been living for several generations in a semi-sterile environment which may have led their immune system to atrophy.
Therefore, if you want to curtail your freedom and the ability to take on a host of varying environmental conditions without succumbing to them, by all means, drink bottled spring water (such as Evian) that has been, collected and bottled without touch of human hand or exposure to the environment. Of course, you can demonstrate your affluence also by paying heavily for a bottle which just contains water that would normally come free - that is, just good tap water.

Fortunately for people like me, today, the normal water in all good hotels and tap water in the cities, is good filtered water which is potable, and I am perfectly happy with it for it gives me an additional advantage of being immunologically protected.
Remember, when we travelled in our country by train till the 1980s, we took a Surahi with us in a Surahidan or, if we could travel in the upper class, a thermos. Water was of course free and there was no excess baggage charge for it.
Today in our trains we see mostly bottled water which could just as well belong to any of the categories mentioned above. What this shows is that our middle class has become more affluent and less knowledgeable. In fact, the extent of the use of bottled water in a society today could be taken as a measure of both its affluence and its overall ignorance.
But must increased affluence always lead to increased ignorance? It would, unless we learn how to handle the politics and economics of things like bottled water.