Hope trickles into India's 'arsenic zone'

WEST BENGAL: Swapan Das, 40, a petty daily wager of Madhusudan Kanti village located close to Bangladesh border is a happy man.

Happy not because his skin - damaged by severe arsenic poisoning or Arsenicosis 15 years ago - is healing but that the children of his village would finally be able to drink water free from dangerous levels of the chemical.

"I have no idea what is going to cure me," he told Dawn describing how the infection affected his entire skin despite seeing doctors and hospitals regularly.

"But now our children will be safe from this disease."

Besides Madhusudan Kanti, situated 60km north of capital Kolkata and 14 kms off the Bangladesh border, many areas of this state have for long made the headlines for water-related diseases its population has been suffering from.

But when an international social service organisation, Sulabh, installed its first water purifying plant five months ago in Madhusudhakati, the villagers finally saw a ray of hope.

Officials of Sulabh claim that their purifying plant converts contaminated pond water into safe drinking water that can be sold at only 50 paise per litre in villages and nearby cities of India.

They say the new water purification process has a capacity to produce 8,000 litres of potable water per day at a cost of 10 paise.

"The areas which have heavy chemical and bacteriological contamination water sources will be targeted in first phase," Dr Bindeswar Pathak, founder of Sulabh told Dawn.

Pathak said his organisation has already installed water-purifying plants in three villages Bishnapur, Faridkati and Teghoria, targeting 1600 households of mostly farmers including 11 schools and another is still under construction.

"This is an innovative model through a joint venture of Sulabh International and a French organisation '1001 Fontaines', which through various stages of purification provide safe drinking water from water bodies like rivers or ponds," he said.

In many places of West Bengal, people have no choice but to drink arsenic-contaminated water. According to the state's Pollution Control Board, of the 341 blocks, water in the 81 blocks is contaminated with arsenic and 49 others with fluoride.

"This is the first time in the world that we have succeeded in producing pure drinking water at a very nominal cost by this new technology and villagers will directly benefit from it," Pathak said.

People in parts of this state have a history of consuming arsenic-contaminated water, through no choice of their own, over a long period of time that has caused skin problems like colour changes, hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet.

Arsenicosis also causes skin cancer, cancers of the bladder, kidney and lung, and diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet, and possibly also diabetes, high blood pressure and reproductive disorders.

More than 25 million people in West Bengal are believed to be living in the risk zone for arsenic contamination of ground water.

"It's a serious problem. I receive patients with skin cancer and respiratory problems frequently. I think the only prevention is safe drinking water," a local doctor S K Choudhary told Dawn.

Villagers see the arsenic problem declining after using water from the new installations.

Bhaban Mundal, 52, a farmer says most of the tube wells in the villages here are contaminated with arsenic and "the water plants have come at the right time".

"We had one tube well and used it for sometime until its water was tested positive for arsenic. So we stopped drinking from it but we still use it for irrigation purposes.

Mantosh Biswas, 55, of Teghoria village in Pargana district told Dawn he remained uncured for 25 years and that the government was always missing when it came to taking steps to reduce the spread of this menace in his village.

"Through surgery I was able to remove some patches from my body. But there seems to be no complete treatment," he said.

"This new water plant has made me feel better, although I still have breathing problems."

In the cleaning process, the surface water source is treated by alum coagulation, sedimentation, filtration, micro- filtration and finally through U/V tubes.

Pure water is then home delivered in 20 liters bottles, which are cleaned and sealed by the project staff after bottling.

The water is available at the rate of 50 paise per liter, which makes it the cheapest water available in the world. The water is also supplied free to primary and higher secondary schools, and Anganwari centres (government sponsored child-care and mother-care centre).

"I have seen four people die because of this problem so far," Haldhar Sarkar, chairman of Madhusudan Kanti Krishak Kalyan Samiti, a local NGO and partners who are looking over the project along with Sulabh, told Dawn.

"The villagers are showing great interest and acceptance for this drinking water which is cheap and readily available in an arsenic zone like this. It has brought smiles all around," he said.

Baba Tamim is an independent photojournalist based in New Delhi, India. He specializes in covering conflict, human rights, and environmental issues.

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