The nectar poison we drink

  • 14/10/2004

When Neena Khanna from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences called to tell us that her patient who lives in Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh had high levels of arsenic in his blood, hair and nails, we were stunned. Why Ballia? We knew of arsenic in West Bengal and Bangladesh but not in Uttar Pradesh. What could be the reason?

What we found has left has stunned and angry (see Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 8, September 15, 2004). Not because we found that people in this wretchedly poor region are indeed drinking arsenic-poisoned groundwater. Not because we found poor people crippled, dying of cancer. Not even because we heard girls did not get married unless villagers paraded before prospective bridegrooms, to show there was nothing unique about lesions on the girl's body.

What shocked us was the sheer indifference and callousness of the district administration. It simply shrugged off the problem. It is nothing, they said. Nothing. What also came as a shock - but not as a surprise - was that the analysis of groundwater government had done there to check for arsenic was negative. Why no arsenic was found in all the samples the administration had sent to the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre was a mystery, when villagers were visibly suffering. And if it was not arsenic, what was it? Again, there were no answers. Please imagine the scene. Villagers asked if their well had arsenic. They were assured otherwise. They kept drinking that same water - poison - daily. How worse can it get?

But we have played this dastardly hide-behind-science-and-cover-up game many times now. We know the ground rules. So we decided to collect samples of the groundwater, human hair and nails (arsenic, it is known, is deposited in these) for analysis. In all the water samples analysed, there were high levels of arsenic, much beyond the permissible limit. In the hair samples we got tested, arsenic was as high as 4700 to 6300 parts per billion (ppb). There is no real way of comparing how high this is, because no agency in the world has ever set standards for the 'normal' level (they assume arsenic should be absent). But up to 250 ppb is tolerable, say some scientific papers. Clearly, what we found was not 'acceptable'.

Since the release of our report, there has been some flutter. Without being cynical, I know what it means. The administration will shift from the denial mode to the money-making mode: arsenic will now offer new opportunities to order mitigation equipment, and the joyful paraphernalia of contracting out.

The Union ministry of water resources believes only eight districts of West Bengal and one district of Bihar is "known" to be arsenic contaminated. It believes it has a hold on the problem. Actually, it's put a huge lid on the problem. The fact of the matter is that arsenic is increasingly being found in districts of Bihar, terai Uttar Pradesh and even Assam. Here is a pandemic.

Why is arsenic being found in these areas? Indeed, why is arsenic found at all in groundwater? Scientists who study arsenic cannot agree on most things between themselves. At the same time, they broadly accept that arsenic is natural, and is found in this region because it came with the silt deposited by the mighty rivers centuries ago. This silt was deposited when the rivers meandered and slowed down, which is why it is widespread in the delta of Bangladesh and West Bengal. But the issue of why this natural arsenic is activated in the groundwater is still a matter of theory. Nevertheless, what should suffice, and guide, policy making is that there is a - some - clear reason for arsenic to be found in the Indo-gangetic plains. There exists an intensely deadly problem. It is an intensely human problem. So - science apart - it has to be dealt with.

I would argue that the issue of arsenic in water - like its cousin, fluoride, which leads to equally crippling fluorosis - is importantly connected to water management; indeed, its mismanagement. Both are found in groundwater. But they are found in our drinking water because we have heavily contaminated surface water bodies or simply finished them off. Ironically, once, surface water bodies were contaminated with our waste and dirt and became the cause of waterborne diseases. Policy then encouraged people to move to groundwater. Why? It was thought safer. In this process all the lakes, ponds and tanks, which stored water and recharged groundwater, were further neglected, ground to dirt. This meant that the groundwater was extracted but less of it recharged. Lesser and lesser.

In the case of large parts of fluorosis-crippled India, scientists agree that the deeper extraction of groundwater is why this natural toxin is in the water. The solutions here are complicated, for water is now scarce and all technologies to clean fluorosis have been found difficult to work with. But the arsenic problem is less confounding. The Gangetic plains is a rain-rich region, so it is possible to use surface water bodies once again for drinking. In fact, it would be possible to recharge shallow wells and clean ponds, so that arsenic-laden water does cause slow death.

But in the end, the problem is not even water. The problem is the ability to find and home in to that poisoned well or handpump, and inform people of the quality of the water they are drinking. Ultimately, all monitoring must lead to an answer to why people are suffering. The Ballia-type denial game must stop. Only then will our chronically fractured water and health bureaucracies work to find functional answers. Till then, the nectar will keep turning into poison. And there will be nobody to drink it, except us.

- Sunita Narain

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