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India: Skepticism Grows over Government Plan to Rid Water of Arsenic

Akash Vashishtha
New Delhi
2017-03-16
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An Indian villager in Madhusudankati, about 60 km (37 miles) east of Kolkata, shows effects of severe arsenic poisoning on his feet and hands, March 25, 2015.
AFP

Premranjan Kumar Paswan is worried that his father, who was recently diagnosed with acute kidney failure, will die young.

Paswan’s father, Bhola Babu, 54, was told last week that he would not survive long unless he underwent an immediate renal transplant, a difficult and expensive medical option for modest farmers from eastern India’s Bihar state.

Babu’s condition was diagnosed the same day the Indian government announced an ambitious plan to rid the country’s groundwater of arsenic, a chemical element caused by natural geological processes, which Paswan blames for his father’s ailment.

“At least 15 people have died in our village over the last couple of years due to diseases relating to consumption of contaminated water. The level of arsenic in the groundwater is too much. I have proof that contaminated water is causing these deaths and diseases. I have even approached the authorities for help, but they’ve never taken action,” Paswan, a resident of north Bihar’s Madarpur village, told BenarNews.

Paswan’s village is part of the Ganges river basin, where arsenic-laced groundwater is most prevalent.

“Within minutes of pumping water, you’ll see the color of the groundwater turn to black. The water we use is highly polluted,” Paswan said.

Although there are no figures available to determine the number of deaths caused annually by consumption of arsenic-laden water, the problem affects more than 40 million people in at least 10 Indian states, according to official estimates.

Increased levels of arsenic contamination are seen in places where there is high dependency on groundwater. The drilling of new tube wells lowers the water table and allows oxygen to get into bedrock aquifers, creating chemical reactions that release arsenic into groundwater.

Government plan

On March 7, the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga (Ganges) Rejuvenation, for the first time announced an action plan to remediate arsenic contamination in groundwater.

As part of the plan, the government would explore “in-situ [on-site] remediation of arsenic from aquifers and ex-situ remediation from trapped groundwater through arsenic removal technologies and use of surface water as an alternative to polluted groundwater.”

Execution of the action plan would begin next month after seeking reports from more than 300 experts, the ministry said.

“We hope to gather all our research and likely solutions from the experts within a few days and begin implementing the action plan around April 15,” Minister of Water Resources Uma Bharti told BenarNews.

The plan, according to experts, is replete with challenges and will not work unless the government aims to create awareness among villagers vulnerable to arsenic poisoning.

“There are task forces constituted in many states, such as Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh. But their functioning is far from ideal,” Safa Fanaian, a member of the Hyderabad-based Arsenic Knowledge and Action Network, told BenarNews.

“The task force doesn’t think about villagers directly affected by the water contamination. There is no implementation plan keeping them in mind. There needs to be work done at the village level. The government needs to start right from the bottom,” she said.

Eklavya Prasad of the Megh Pyne Abhiyan, an organization working on rainwater harvesting in flood-prone areas of Bihar, told BenarNews: “On paper, the government plan seems interesting and positive, but the government needs to really ensure the plan benefits the primary stakeholder.

“There has to be decentralized management of water resources, operation and maintenance, while promoting use of modern technology at the village level.”

While the government prepares to implement its master plan, Paswan is at pains to come up with an idea that could save his father’s life.

“Did the government not know earlier that the water we get in hundreds of villages in India was polluted? If they knew, why did they not tell us before? It’s a shame millions in India, said to be one of the fastest developing nations, are subjected to unsafe drinking water.”

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