50 million affected by Arsenic Poisoning in West Bengal

As rural West Bengal’s residents die of poisoning, the local administration claims they have no knowledge of the problem in the area

Everyday Jahema Bewa has to trudge miles through muddy fields to get drinking water. While there are deep tubewells in her village, Jahema and others in her village repeatedly fall sick when they drink from them. First they develop angry rashes on their skin. Then the stomach pains start and eventually, the ones who continue to drink the water, will be diagnosed with cancer. The groundwater in Jahema’s village has toxic levels of arsenic.

Fourteen out of 19 districts in West Bengal have groundwater in  which the proportion of arsenic exceeds the World Health Organisation’s recommended limits of 10 μg/litre. This puts more that half of the 90 million population at potential risk of arsenicosis, or arsenic poisoning. Eighty percent of India’s surface water is contaminated by sewage. As a result ground water harvested through deep tubewells is deemed safer. The catch is that in areas where groundwater naturally has high levels of arsenic like West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam, this leads to arsenic poisoning. Short term exposure causes gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting, bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain. Long exposure causes neurological disorders, lesions on the skin and ultimately leads to cancer and death.

The West Bengal government has been aware of the problem since the early 1980s. The first arsenic survey in the state was done in 1988. And in the past, the state has been lauded as the only state in India to have a task-force to combat arsenicosis. The government had even promised to provide one source of arsenic free safe water in every locality by 2013.

But reality belies such grand promises. For residents of two villages in Malda and Murshidabad districts, the problem has continued unabated. Several people in both villages have died. The promise to give the villagers access to piped potable water is still a distant dream.

The fundamental right to uncontaminated and unpolluted water is guaranteed to citizens under Article 21 of the Indian constitution. And yet people continue to suffer while the local administration continues to claim they aren’t aware of the problem. It is a problem that requires the intervention of organisations and individuals interested in ‘safe water access’ in rural districts, in the face of government denial and apathy.

Video Volunteers’ Community Correspondents, Soriya Banu and Nesatun Bibi, are committed in their goal of bringing clean, safe water to their communities. Write to us at info@videovolunteers.org if you have ideas, suggestions or would like to collaborate with us to facilitate access to safe water for the millions of West Bengal citizens affected by this arsenic calamity.

This article first appeared in Newslaundry
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