West Bengal || Bangladesh
Middle Ganga Plain, Bihar ||
Yet the Government of West Bengal has steadily ignored or deliberately reduced the extent of this environmental hazard. On 5 April 1999 the Health Minister claimed a substantial improvement in the groundwater arsenic situation from that in 1983. In August 2000 a high-ranking official of the state government told in an international meeting in Bangladesh that West Bengal had only 450 arsenic patients from all arsenic affected districts and that arsenic-free drinking water is supplied to people in the affected areas through a pipeline network. These claims are disproved by scientific and empirical evidence to the contrary. It is my contention in this paper that not only thousands of present sufferers, but countless future generations are still gravely at risk from groundwater arsenic contamination in West Bengal.
Twenty years ago, groundwater arsenic contamination and symptoms of arsenic related ailments were first noticed in patients residing in three villages of two districts in West Bengal. Today, this minor arsenic incident has taken a menacing look simply due to negligence and lack of proper controlling mechanisms. A minimum of 6.5 million people including about 2 million children belonging to 9 out of the total 18 districts of West Bengal were drinking arsenic contaminated water which contains arsenic more than the maximum permissible limit set by WHO (which is 50 µg/l) and about 300,000 are already suffering from arsenic related diseases. About 50 million inhabitants of these 9 districts are at risk from arsenic toxicity. Many people with moderate to severe arsenical skin lesions have been found to develop cancer eventually. Previously, it was thought skin cancer is the common type of cancer caused by arsenic. But lung, liver, colon, bladder etc. cancers have been found among those suffering from chronic arsenic toxicity.
A team of average 15 researchers from Jadavpur University, Kolkata has been engaged for the last 17 years in the task of surveying the magnitude of the arsenic problem in the villages of West Bengal's affected districts. We have analyzed 1,28,303 water samples from 9 arsenic affected districts by Flow Injection Hydride Generation-AAS. Out of the total samples analyzed, 50% are unsafe to drink according to WHO recommended value of arsenic in drinking water (recommended value is 10 µg/l) and 26.7% contains arsenic above WHO maximum permissible limit (maximum permissible limit is 50µg/l). So far we have identified 3285 villages from 85 blocks out of 9 affected districts (Figure 1) where ground water contains arsenic above 50 µg/l and registered 10,000 people from 284 villages with arsenical skin lesions (Table 1).
Table 1: Present Groundwater Arsenic Contamination Status of West Bengal, India
*On the the basis of no. of tubewells having arsenic >300 µg/l
But we feel we have been
able to survey and bring to light only a negligible amount of the real
and menacingly huge proportion of the calamity. With every of our subsequent
survey there is an increase of both the number of affected villages and
that of ailing persons. During our survey we have noticed that in some
villages where a few years before after analyzing the hand tube-wells,
we colored the tube-wells green (arsenic < 10 µg/l)
and told the villagers to drink the water, a good percentage of those
This is also true for deep tube-wells. Some time back when we realized it would take us years to find out the actual magnitude of the calamity, we decided to survey in detail 2 out of 9 arsenic affected districts of West Bengal. We have been undertaking a detail survey of North 24-Parganas and Murshidbad for the last 5 and 3 years respectively. This survey is still on.