Every morning, Swapan Das goes to the water filtration plant in his village, established a year ago by a New Delhi-based NGO, Sulabh International. This is the only source of clean water as the tube wells in the vicinity have been found to be arsenic contaminated.
Das, like the others in his village, Madhusudan Kati, in West Bengal, had been drinking water from the wells for the last twenty years without knowing that he was drinking poisonous water, till he found symptoms of illness, which the doctors then detected to have been caused by the contaminated water in the village.
There are more than 200 tube wells in this village, and all are found to be arsenic-hit. Doctors have summarily recommended them not to drink the water. Fortunately for Das and others in the village, the NGO is now providing fresh and clean water at inexpensive rates.
“The packaged water available in market costs around INR 20 for a litre, but now, we are getting 20 litres for INR 20 and qualitatively, it has a lot of benefits as well,” says Kaveri Pal, another villager.
In India, arsenic contamination first surfaced in West Bengal in 1983 and over the years, other states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Manipur were also found to have been chronically exposed to arsenic contaminated water from tube wells.
As per the Journal of Environmental Biology, chronic exposure to arsenic leads to skin ailments, including keratosis and skin cancer, internal cancers such as that of lungs and bladder, and diseases of the vascular system. Other health problems, such as diabetes, organ dysfunction and adverse reproductive outcomes have been observed, but, the evidence is not yet conclusive, although the reported instances keep growing.
“The problem of arsenic contamination in ground water from the vast tracts of alluvial aquifers in West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh is known to have affected a population of about 50 million. The number is almost equivalent in Bangladesh. About 6.3 million people in West Bengal live in the arsenic belt; 69 blocks are arsenic-affected, while two are affected by fluoride,” reports Hydrogen and Water Resources Information for India.
To provide safe and clean drinking water, the Indian government has to step up, and do so immediately and effectively. NGOs can catalyse the efforts made by the government.
“Now, we have extended to five parts of West Bengal. We are also planning to expand our outreach to affected areas in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh. We want to do our bit to eradicate this grave issue, but, the government and the people have to come forward,” says Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder, Sulabh International.