India: Water Purifiers: How Women Fight Arsenic Contamination


By Ajitha Menon, Womens Feature Service

Sahidun Bewa, 30, toils hard, making one arsenic filter after another with fine-tuned precision at Bara Andulia village in Nadia district, West Bengal. She earns Rs 100 (US$1=Rs50) per filter. Sahidun is not driven by the money but by the acute awareness that each filter can save up to five lives, on an average. Arsenic acts as slow poison. Over six-and-a-half million people are drinking arsenic-contaminated water every day in this eastern state of India.

“This district has been declared arsenic-prone. The only way to avoid contamination is to use these alumina-activated arsenic filters. We keep motivating women in our villages to use the filters for safe drinking and cooking water to prevent onset of diseases caused by arsenic poisoning,” says Sahidun.

Nadia is one of the nine severely arsenic-contaminated districts in West Bengal. The ground water in all the 17 blocks of the district shows concentrations of arsenic above 0.01 mg/l, the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline permissible value. A survey (A 12-year study conducted in 767 of the 1,250 villages of Nadia, compiled up to September 2006) by the School of Environment Studies, Jadavpur University, found that about 51.2 per cent of the tube wells here had arsenic concentrations of over 0.01 mg/l, while 17.2 per cent had levels above 0.05 mg/l (Indian Standard Value). About 1.8 per cent had contamination above 0.3 mg/l. At least 117 villages (out of 1,250 villages) had arsenic contamination above 0.3 mg/l. A total of 649 villages had contamination above 0.01mg/l while 441 villages had contamination above 0.05mg/l

Dr Dipankar Chakraborty, Director, School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, says, “My studies have found that 95 per cent of children below 11 years of age, living in arsenic affected villages, show hair and nail arsenic above normal level. Infants and children might be at greater risk from arsenic toxicity because of more water consumption on body weight basis.”

“Earlier, villagers were told to boil water before drinking to prevent diseases. Arsenic actually increases if the water is boiled as with evaporation the water volume goes down while the arsenic concentration remains the same. We are trying to change old habits. Measures against arsenic contamination started only around 2003,” explains Bharati Biswas, Secretary, Bara Andulia Mahila Samity, which runs the arsenic filter-making unit in collaboration with UNICEF.

Years of drinking arsenic contaminated water causes various diseases starting from skin lesions, which leads to skin cancer; Bowen’s disease; and cancer of the lungs, liver, colon and bladder. These symptoms take years to surface. Unfortunately, there are few takers for the arsenic filters being manufactured across 13 units in the district. “We are extremely poor. We cannot ensure even one square meal a day for ourselves. How can we afford Rs 500 for an arsenic filter?” Rekha Patra, 45, of Jeetpur Para village flatly asks. Both Rekha and her husband Subhash, 50, like many others in their village, have symptoms of arsenic poisoning, such as hardened skin and Blackfoot disease.

In West Bengal, in addition to Nadia, the districts of Malda, Murshidabad, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Bardhaman, Howrah, Hooghly and Kolkata are severely affected, with a contamination level of over 0.3 mg/l.

Five other districts – Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, North Dinajpur and South Dinajpur – are mildly affected, with contamination above 0.05 mg/l. Only five of the State’s 19 districts are arsenic-safe.

“NGOs and government programme coordinators are dependent on women motivators to create awareness against arsenic poisoning,” says Jasmine Begum, 35, an office-bearer with the Samity. The government has also made provisions for tap water in certain areas but the reach is insignificant.

When the enormity of the contamination became evident, NGOs and organisations like the UNICEF set up arsenic-testing labs in the affected districts. Now the labs have been taken over by the Public Health Engineering (PHE) department of the state government. Nadia has five such labs. “We visit villages and collect samples from local tube wells. For every sample, the lab pays us Rs 25. If the test comes out arsenic positive, we return to the same villages and motivate the villagers to buy the Activated Alumina Arsenic Filters. We earn a commission of Rs 20 for every filter we manage to sell,” explains motivator Farida Biwi, 35, of Chapra village.

Sagari Bewa, 36, motivator of Bara Andulia village, says, “Though testing has not been done to the fullest extent, we know that if vegetables and fruits are cultivated using arsenic-contaminated water, they too have arsenic concentration. We have even found arsenic in cow’s milk after the cow has fed on grass in arsenic contaminated areas. Preventive measures and awareness campaigns are therefore required on a war footing.”

One of the major problems, as seen in Chapra Block of Nadia district, was the constant breakdown of the deep tube wells identified as arsenic-free. “We had to wait for a mechanic for weeks, who would then charge exorbitantly. I decided to join the training camp for women mechanics in Shantipur, conducted by the Zilla Parishad in collaboration with the PHE department,” recalls Zulekha Bibi, 36, from Bara Andulia village. Some 300 trained women mechanics now repair their own as well as government tube wells in villages across Nadia district to ensure that the safe tube wells keep functioning.

Despite the awareness campaigns many still fail to adopt better practices, due to poverty. “Experts from the School of Tropical Medicine, Kolkata, came and told us that in some places here, there are arsenic concentrations of even up to 3.2 mg/l. We are aware that we are drinking poison, but what is the alternative? We are too poor to buy the filters, too poor to replace the regenerated activated alumina candles for Rs 15 each regularly. We were told to improve our diet, eat fish, meat and vegetables – but how? Where is the money? In fact, we are too poor for anyone to actually care,” says Jayanti Biswas, 29, of Tabu para village, whose three-and-half-year-old son was born with a club foot and who reveals that her father-in-law “died of cancer caused by arsenic poisoning.”

The government actually had done something for the people of Tabu para. The PHE department had set up an activated alumina tube well here. The people did use the water from it but when the activated alumina needed replacement, they could not come up with the required money – around Rs 1,000 to cover the cost of cleaning and replacement or approximately Rs 1.5 lakh for a new activated alumina tubewells. The tube well is still being used, but it is no longer arsenic-free.

“People do not find the money for filters or to regenerate the government arsenic free tube wells, but when they have to go to the doctor, they are forced to arrange for the money. The challenge lies in making them aware that even though arsenic poisoning shows symptoms only after 15 to 25 years, it can be fatal. There is also the danger of the future generations suffering even more as groundwater contamination keeps increasing, year after year, because of over-extraction of water,” says Shakila Bibi, a motivator with the Bara Andulia Mahila Samity.

It is ironic indeed when water, which is meant to be life-giving, ends up causing death.

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