Silent killer arsenic slowly poisoning crores of people in West Bengal as successive govts fail to address issue

Atonu Choudhurri

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings €" straight and raw from the ground €" will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

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Gaighata (North 24 Parganas): West Bengal accounts for 1.04 crore out of India's 1.48 crore population harmed by arsenic. At present, 20 percent of the state's population is vulnerable to arsenic-related ailments like skin cancer, and heart and lung diseases. Out of 12 affected districts in West Bengal, the most seriously affected areas are in North 24-Parganas (21 blocks), South 24-Parganas (12 blocks), Nadia (17 blocks), Hooghly (21 blocks), Malda (9 blocks), Burdwan (8 blocks), Howrah (7 blocks) and Murshidabad (23 blocks).

After taking into consideration the severity of the issue, the Centre €" with the recommendation of NITI Aayog €" provided states a one-time assistance of an amount of Rs 800 crore in March 2016. This 100 percent grant by the Government of India sought to provide 8-10 litres per capita per day of safe drinking water in habitations affected by arsenic and fluoride for drinking and cooking purposes, as short term measures through Community Water Purification Plants (CWPPs).

There is no such plant in East Bishnupur of Gaighata block, where two decades of people drinking arsenic-loaded water drawn from tubewells and other sources has led to almost every villager here suffering from arsenic-related ailments. "I have seen my father, mother, two cousins and four other relatives die a slow and painful death from arsenic-related illness," said a pale and emaciated Jaganabhandhu Mondal, who looks far older than his age (51). Jaganabhandhu and his wife Lalita, like many of their neighbours and friends, suffer from frequent bouts of breathlessness, bouts of nausea and weakness.

"The sad part is they died not even aware of their illness, and there was no facility available to treat arsenic-related issues," said Jaganabandhu. Part of the Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency, Jaganabandhu said the poor and ignorant villagers ran from "pillar to post in search of treatment and finally succumbed to a horrible death from cancer and liver diseases". Families like his are forced to buy water at Rs 25 per barrel (which they can barely afford) and store rainwater for drinking purposes. "There is no family in my village that does not have a member suffering from arsenic-induced ailments," said his wife Lalita. "From children to the elderly, everyone is living in perpetual fear of arsenic contamination."

Ananta Das (55), Himela Das (51), and Ajit Das (47) are counting their last days as they suffer from deep scars in their hands, dark spots all over their bodies and severe breathlessness €" all symptoms of acute arsenic infection. "I have lost all hopes of recovery," said a frail-looking Ajit, as he struggled to speak. "No minister or MP or MLA ever comes to ask about our condition. Till now, 34 people of Gaighata have died and others are waiting to die, but the politicians are busy with vote bank politics."

And there is little hope of these villagers getting pure drinking water any time soon. Despite Trinamool Congress government's claim in 2016 that more than 90 percent of people of West Bengal's eight arsenic-affected districts had been provided with pure drinking water, the state's arsenic problem is only getting worse.

"Over-dependence on deep groundwater because of the skewed water management policy in the districts is the root cause of the problem," said Ashok Kumar Das, state president of Arsenic Dushon Protirodh Committee or Arsenic Contamination Redressal Forum. "The volume of water sucked up through tubewells far exceeds the natural replacement of the underground supply. The resulting imbalance causes arsenic to leak from the rocks underground."

The Centre had released funds to the tune of Rs 100 crore for West Bengal for last mile connectivity in commissioning surface water-based piped water supply schemes, according to a reply recorded in the Lok Sabha by Sanjeev Kumar Balyan, the Minister for State for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.

But water being a state subject means the onus is on the state government, while the Centre provides funds and technical assistance. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MoDWS) has said that up to 67 percent fund allocated to the states under National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) can be utilised for coverage of habitations affected by water quality and for tackling water quality problems.

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But precious little was done by successive Left Front and Trinamool Congress governments to tackle the problem that has been affecting crores of people for the past 40 years. The first case of arsenic poisoning was detected in 1982 by Dr KC Saha, HoD of Dermatology at the School of Tropical Science, Kolkata. Later, Dr Dipankar Chakraborty, director of Jadavpur University's School of Environmental Studies, found arsenic in the blood of some villagers at Ashokenagar area of North 24-Parganas>.

A subsequent survey done by Dr Chakraborty found alarming levels of arsenic in the area's water sources, much higher than WHO-stipulated maximum permissible limit of 0.01 mg arsenic per litre in drinking water. All survey reports with recommendations from experts to address the issue were submitted to the government, which ignored them.

Finally, the state government did set up an Arsenic Task Force recently, comprising experts from different fields and representatives of state and central government departments like pollution control board, health and family welfare, surface water investigation, GSI, Department of Science and Technology and the referral state-run SSKM Hospital. The board conducts studies and recommends remedial measures.

Public Health Engineering Department sources said the government had prepared a Vision 2020 document that envisages providing arsenic-free water to the people of affected districts. The source claimed that the latest technologies have been used in the filtration units attached to approximately 400 tubewells installed recently as part of the master plan.

But activists like Ashok Kumar Das describe such measures as baby steps. Arsenic-removal technologies can broadly be categorised as household-level filters, community-level treatment plants, in-situ arsenic treatment, dug-wells and ponds and piped water supply schemes and strengthening rainwater harvesting. "But unless the government takes up long-term projects, the issue can't be addressed permanently as it involves huge costs and creating mass awareness," added Das.

Das argued that even the identification of arsenic victims is slow. But Block Medical Officer of Health (BMOH), Victor Saha, said a medical team is monitoring the situation and treating patients.

"We identified 32 persons with arsenic-related ailments at a camp in mid-March. Some of were diagnosed with cancer and proper medicines are being given." The villagers, however, repeat that arsenic-specific treatment continues to elude them. "Arsenic is an agent of slow and painful death," reiterated Das. "Sadly, there are no pragmatic, sincere and time-bound measures from the government to address this major health issue. What can you expect when the basic approach is faulty."

Like in every election, this issue is bound to be raised by Opposition candidates in these regions particularly. "Gaighata block is one of the worst-affected arsenic areas but the ruling party always ignores the locals' concerns," said local BJP leader Chandrakanta Das. We'll surely rake up the issue during the polls." CPI's state committee member Ranjit Karmakar added: "TMC MP from Bongaon Mamata Bala Thakur always turned a blind eye to the issue when we raised it."

A charge inevitably denied by the MP. "Water from Ganga river is being sourced through a pipeline from Naihati to Gaighata to solve the problem of drinking water shortage," said Bala Thakur. "Besides, deep tubewells have been set up in the area." Yet, after all the arguments and campaign speeches are done, the problem of villagers suffering a slow and painful death from the contaminated water will remain. As Jaganabhandu's wife Lalita said, "We all are actually waiting to die."

(The author is a Kolkata-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)

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