Why this Arsenic Belt village has no use for Bengal election

Groundwater poisoned by arsenic has caused a health crisis in Gajna Tegharia and the people allege politicians have done little to address it.

ByAtonu Choudhurri
Why this Arsenic Belt village has no use for Bengal election
Himela Das, in pink sari, with fellow villagers.
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At Gajna Tegharia in Bengal’s Gaighata constituency, the villagers couldn’t care less about the ongoing election. They have more pressing problems to worry about, problems that they say their representatives have long failed to address.

A nondescript village of about 1,000 people, Gajna Tegharia falls in what has come to be known as the Arsenic Belt, 12 districts where arsenic from underground rocks has poisoned drinking water, leading to severe health problems, even deaths. In the last three years alone, ailments caused by arsenic poisoning have killed at least 35 villagers, three more than the official figure, said Himela Das, 55.

For decades now, they have seen politicians come at election time and promise to solve the urgent problems of poisoning, and the lack of clean drinking water and decent healthcare, only to be forgotten until the next election season, Himela said. So they would rather not waste any more time on politicians and their campaigns.

Gaighata votes in the sixth phase on April 22, to elect one of Trinamool Congress’s Narottam Biswas, CPIM’s Kapil Krishna Thakur and BJP’s Subrata Thakur. In the previous election, Pulin Bihari Ray of the Trinamool won against Kapil Krishna Thakur by 29,572 votes. Pulin didn’t get the ticket this election.

“What’s the use of elections?” Himela asked. “Politicians come with big promises but deliver nothing. Elections are meaningless to us. What’s the use of votes if our basic minimum needs do not get fulfilled?”

Himela has dark spots on her hands and legs, signs of poisoning. Most people in her village are similarly affected, she claimed, as are large numbers of those living in the neighbouring villages of Bishnupur Jayantipara and Bishnupur Uttarpara.

Himela has watched three neighbours – Manoranjan Biswas, his wife and brother – perish to cancer caused by arsenic poisoning.

“Manoranjan was unaware of what they were drinking until they developed cancer. The husband and wife died the same day. The brother died soon after,” she said. “Actually, all of us are waiting to die.”

In all, ailments suspected to be caused by arsenic poisoning such as skin cancer and heart and lung diseases are estimated to have laid low about 20 percent of Bengal’s nearly 10 crore population. At least 200 people have died from such ailments in the state, as per the government, although activists put the toll as high as 1,000.

The first case of arsenic poisoning in Bengal was detected in 1982 by KC Saha at the School of Tropical Science, Kolkata. It was a person from Gaighata.

Since then, Ashok Das, state president of the non-profit Arsenic Contamination Redressal Forum, said, ”Arsenic has spread in 12 districts inhabited by nearly 1.5 crore people.”

“Yet,” he added, “there has been no effective mechanism to tackle the health hazards. No government has ever seriously addressed this and now we are seeing the result. Hardly any month goes without an arsenic death being reported.”

The main reason for arsenic poisoning, Ashok pointed out, is that, in the absence of piped water, villagers are excessively dependent on deep groundwater.

Bidyut Kumar Santra, a chemistry professor at Raiganj University in North Dinajpur, who has extensively studied the phenomenon, agreed. “The volume of water sucked up through tubewells exceeds the natural replacement of the underground supply. And the imbalance causes arsenic to leak from underground rocks into the water,” he explained.

Surveys conducted over the years have indeed found high levels of arsenic in groundwater, yet the government has done little to address it.

“I was closely associated with Dr Dipankar Chakraborty, director of Jadavpur University’s School of Environmental Studies, who, you could say, devoted his life to the cause of arsenic-affected people until his death last year,” said Ashok. “He found arsenic in the blood of some villagers at Ashokenagar, North 24 Parganas. There was a hue and cry initially but the outrage soon subsided. The government did not really care.”

Jagabandhu Das, a trader from Bishnupur Jayantipara, was not even aware that he and his family had been using contaminated water for years until a sample from their tubewell was tested. It contained very high levels of arsenic, said Jagabandhu, who has developed dark patches on his hand. He could not recall exactly how high the arsenic content was but it was above the safe limit of 0.01 mg per litre stipulated by the World Health Organization.

“It is sad that despite surveys and recommendations by experts, the government has done nothing to address the serious health problems,” complained Ashok.

Ashok and Jagabandhu have been collecting money to pay for the treatment of poor people poisoned by arsenic in Gaighata and elsewhere in North 24 Parganas. They would take many of the patients to Kolkata’s PG Hospital until two years ago when the authorities there said they didn’t have the infrastructure and resources to cater to the ever increasing numbers.

One of the new water pumps installed by the Bengal government.

One of the new water pumps installed by the Bengal government.

In 2016, the central government gave every state Rs 800 crore to provide 8-10 litres of safe drinking water a day per capita in villages affected by arsenic poisoning. The Bengal government used the grant to set up arsenic-free water pumps, run on solar power, including in Bishnupur Jayantipara, Bishnupur Uttarpara and Gajna Tegharia.

But the villagers we spoke with maintained that the new pumps had not solved the problem. “To my knowledge, four-five pumps emitted arsenic-contaminated water. We have seen so many experts from foreign countries come for field visits in our areas. We have been told by government officials that money is being invested to make drinking water arsenic-free. In reality, nothing has happened. People keep dying and the media reports it also, but no minister or MLA ever takes up our cause,” said Sajal Das, a shopkeeper at Bishnupur Uttarpara.

Bhim Das, another villager, interjected, “We are all waiting to die slowly. It is a really painful death. I have seen many relatives and neighbours die of cancer, heart diseases and neurological ailments.”

Many of his fellow villagers, he added, have grown quite weak and frequently have bouts of breathlessness and nausea. And there are no affordable medical facilities in the region where they could go for treatment.

Bhim Das, right, with another villager.

Bhim Das, right, with another villager.

“Here, everyone lives in fear of death,” said Sabita Das, a young housewife at Bishnupur Jayantipara. “We traditionally voted for the Left. When the Trinamool came to power, their MLAs neglected us. I voted in 2016 with the hope that our problems would be addressed, but nothing happened. This time, I’m not going to vote at all.”

Ajit Das, another villager, echoed the sentiment, “Tell me why I should vote? So many people are dying in Gaighata, what are ministers and MLAs doing? There’s no use casting our votes.”

The Trinamool Congress government claims to have provided safe drinking water to over 90 percent people in the districts most affected by arsenic contamination. They have also set up an Arsenic Task Force comprising health, science and pollution experts to address the problem.

But Ashok said they have seen no benefit of any of this. “The government’s Vision 2020 document envisages providing arsenic-free water to the people in the affected districts. According to their plan, 400 tubewells were supposed to be set up in the affected areas,” he explained, “but where is the setup?”

Pictures by Atonu Choudhurri.

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