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Only Iron-Contaminated Water for Village at Himalayan Foothills

For three years, this Bengal village has been thirsting. The handpumps spurt harmful, iron-rich water, and no pipeline supply is in sight.

“The water problem here is severe, there is no water for drinking and washing, no water for our cattle either”, says Julmaya Bhujal, who makes a 4km trek every morning to get water from the neighbouring tea gardens.

The region has a natural water shortage owing to the terrain, and the groundwater has high iron levels. As a result, the water from the handpump is contaminated by iron and is leading to health problems. The 39 families that inhabit Bhujal’s hamlet, Gangutia Khas, have been getting their water from tanks in the Gangutia and Rajabhat tea gardens.

It is appalling that so many families are at the mercy of tea gardens owned by large corporations for a basic need like safe water.

“Drawing water from the tea garden tanks has its own set of problems”, says Community Correspondent Harihar Nagbansi. He explains that the tea gardens are privately owned and the management is not happy about neighbouring villages using their water. It is appalling that so many families are at the mercy of tea gardens owned by large corporations for a basic need like safe water. Having no other option, the village residents continue to do so despite the tension.

The handpumps in Gangutia Khas were installed by the Public Health Engineering Department of the state government. Of the three handpumps that the department installed, two stopped working in October 2016 and the third has been pumping out iron-contaminated water. The village residents made a complaint and the Alipurduar Zila Parishad repaired the two malfunctioning handpumps within a month.

Explaining what compelled the Parishad to act, Harihar says, “the anganwadi workers and the Asha workers in the area helped the residents build pressure on the Panchayat to take the problem up with the Parishad.” He adds that local BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) workers also encouraged the residents in pursuing the issue. Both the MP and the MLA of the constituency that the hamlet falls in belong to the TMC (Trinamool Congress), the BJP’s main opposition in West Bengal. Within six months of the repair work, the problem was back and the handpumps were spurting contaminated water once again.

When the adults are at work in the farms, it is the children who have to fetch the water, and so, they cannot go to school.

The arduous walk and the tension over the tea garden tanks are only part of the story. When the adults are at work in the farms, it is the children who have to fetch the water, and so, they cannot go to school. “The village only has a primary school which has recently opened, the high school is some 4-5 km away and the older children often cannot attend school because they have to go fetch water”, says Harihar.

Moreover, consuming or coming into contact with contaminated water is increasingly taking a toll on people’s health. “Some contract fevers, some have diarrhoea and some others are suffering from skin diseases”, says Pandey Sharma, a member of the Garopara Panchayat, under which Gangutia Khas falls. Excessive iron ingestion can lead to vomiting and nausea and even damage vital organs, prolonged contact with iron-contaminated water also leads to acne and eczema. West Bengal features among the top states with high levels of iron contamination.

The troubled residents have taken the issue up with the Panchayat once again, they wrote an application to the Panchayat head in April 2017 and with Sharma’s help, sent a copy of the application to the BDO (Block Development Officer) as well. To ensure that the matter does not fizzle out, Harihar has also sent an application to the District Magistrate of Alipurduar in May 2017 with the help of his mentors at Video Volunteers.

A water crisis has plagued parts of West Bengal for a long time. The state government, as part of Vision 2020, has planned 628 projects to improve the situation. In Alipurduar, a water supply scheme has been planned where unfiltered water from the Torsa will be supplied to houses. Gangutia Khas has not benefitted from any of the projects yet. While the groundwater in the region naturally has high iron content, the state has succeeded in alleviating the crisis in some surrounding villages. Reservoirs have been built to store water from waterfalls and the water is being supplied to homes through pipelines, according to Alipurduar MP Deviprasad Karnam.

“The provisions of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme of 2009 guarantee safe, potable and adequate water but these provisions have not touched Bhujal and her community”, says Harihar. He now plans to show his video to the Panchayat for a quicker response. To ensure that the crisis is resolved, call the Panchayat Head of Garopara on 8967117415 and tell her of the Gangutia Khas residents’ demands for properly functioning handpumps and pipeline water supply.

Article by Alankrita Anand

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