April 7, 2017 21:28 IST | Sarita Brara
Lush green fields dotted by trees laden with mangoes, bananas and coconuts as far as the eye can see. But the picture-perfect impression of Madhusudankati and other nearby villages in the Gaigahta block in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, is deceptive. A large number of people here suffer from severe skin and other ailments because of the high arsenic level in the groundwater. At least nine deaths were reported earlier, and the latest victim, Sapan Das, succumbed just a few months ago.
Until not long ago, the people in this cluster of villages, less than 15 km from the Bangladesh border, had no choice but to drink the arsenic-affected water from tube wells or the contaminated water from ponds, risking their health.
Two years ago, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation (SISSO) set up a plant here to treat the water of a pond in Madhusudankati. Safe drinking water has since been supplied at 50 paisa per bottle, or ₹10 for 20 litres, to about 500 families. But first a campaign was launched to dissuade them from drinking the groundwater and switch to safe drinking water instead. As a result, today the supply is less than the demand. Dilip Sarkar, a veterinary doctor from a nearby village, who suffers from a severe skin problem, strongly advocates the use of only safe water for drinking and cooking. “Earlier blood oozed from my wounds almost every day, but now the problem has subsided to a large extent. At least one or two members of almost every family here suffer from skin-related ailments.”
Free water for schools
Villagers like Sarkar are provided safe drinking water free of cost as well as free medicines and treatment. The anganwadis and schools in the area, too, do not have to pay for the bottled water.
The worst-affected villages apart from Madhusudankati are Faridkati, Nagbari, Taghoria, Bishnupur and Gazna.
Bishakha Das from Taghoria and her sister have skin problems. Bishakha says her father and grandfather died of liver and skin cancer. Dr Sarkar says even the cattle in the area is affected.
The SISSO plant was set up at a cost of ₹20 lakh in collaboration with the International Academy of Environmental Sanitation and Public Health, 1001 fontains of France and a local voluntary organisation Madhusudankati Krishak Kalyan Samity.
According to workers at the plant, the sale of safe potable water has increased from 100 to 300 bottles a day within two years. The current production capacity is 5,000 litres; to meet the rising demand for 500-600 bottles a day, a second tank would have to be installed.
According to Sulabh, the programme aims to provide affordable safe drinking water in affected rural areas through cost-effective treatment of waterbodies, developing an entrepreneur model by training the locals and creating local management and infrastructure for operation. Madhusudankati Krishi Unnayan Samity, which manages the plant, is ploughing back the profit for the welfare of the region’s small and marginal farmers, says its chairman Haldar Sarkar.
Rains and contamination
A similar plant was set up in West Midnapur. A pathologist at the Mahakali Nursing Home near the plant, Dr Soman Ghosh said the groundwater here is high in iron. “The water turns red after keeping for an hour or so.”
He says contaminated surface water, especially during inundation in the rainy season, leads to a large number of diarrhoea and jaundice cases.
The people here say that during floods it is difficult to get surface water, and a large population is affected in villages like Nandapur and Singhchak; the water purifying plant is their saviour.
According to Sulabh, the use of purified water for the last two year has reduced the incidence of water-related diseases.
A plant for treating a dug-well in Haridaspur village was inaugurated in the last week of March. Commissioning the plant, Sulabh founder Bindeshwar Pathak said his organisation has shown the way and it is for the government to set up similar plants in other affected areas. Studies have revealed that water in 79 blocks in eight districts of the State has arsenic contamination.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi