Arsenic Poisoning

troubled water

Sekhar Roy


The presence of arsenic in ground water beyond maximum permissible limit (MRL) in a vast area of West Bengal continues to be a major concern. Latest information reveals that 3133 habitations in 65 blocks in 8 districts have shown presence of arsenic beyond MRL. But the official figures hardly tell the truth, the problem is much more serious than what is officially said about it from time to time. The districts include Malda, both South & North 24 Parganas. Also, entire southern part of Calcutta is contaminated with arsenic pollutants in ground water. Western part of the state is faced with another problem of water quality in the form of excess fluoride in ground water. The Sunderbans and Coastal sub-division of Midnapore district are polluted by excess salinity in its ground water resources. Neighbouring Bangladesh has also similar problem of arsenic pollution in larger scale. But the Bangladesh authorities are honest in not down playing the danger. The problem, however, is not unique in Bengal region, arsenic contaminated ground water exists in many countries including the United States of America, where people can afford to drink pollution-free water through state sponsored water installations. But situation in this part of the globe is worse as far as the drinking water is concerned.


In West Bengal, about 20,000 tubewells are reported to have contained arsenic level higher than 50 ppb and large population depending on these tubewells suffer from arsenocosis. According to the experts, there are two forms of arsenic soluble in water like arsenite and arsenate, of which arsenate is quickly absorbed by the human system. Continuous exposure from five to ten years to high doze arsenate may cause numerous skin diseases, stomach  ailment, loss of limbs, cancer of internal organs, hearing impairment and neurological disorders etc. In rural Bengal, the women affected by arsenic diseases are forced to live in isolation.


Excessive fluoride and salinity in the ground water also pose threat to the people of Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum, Western part of Burdwan, Contai sub-division of Midnapore and coastal area of South 24 Parganas. State Govt however, found only 52 habitations in 13 blocks of 4 western districts as containing excess fluoride. In fluoride contaminated areas, school children suffer from dental fluorisis diseases while intake of excess saline in ground water is unfit for human consumption.


There is no death of ground water resources in the state, but much of this is contaminated and polluted. Surprisingly, there is no comprehensive report on the arsenic syndrome though the problem was detected in the early eighties. At the moment, state govt. looks unable to combat the arsenic menace on its own. Four schemes have so far been sanctioned with 75:25 financial participation of the Centre and State for providing arsenic free water in the affected areas. These are First Phase Action Plan, Second Phase Action Plan, Malda Surface Water Project and South 24 Parganas Surface Water Project. State’s fund is provided under its Basic Minimum Service Programme (BMS) while the Centre has provided fund under Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programming. (ARWSP). In 1999-2000, the



budget allocation of BMS was for Rs 65 crore while provision of Rs 71 crore utilised under ARWSP grant. In the last budget session of the state Assembly, a sum of Rs 346.6 crore has been granted for water supply and sanitation under state public health engineering department (PHED). According to the report published by PHED. First Phase Action Plan at an estimated cost of Rs 8.58 crore has been completed. Under the scheme, 754 tubewells and 8 big diameter tubewells have been replaced and 6 piped water supply schemes have been commissioned to cover 3,00,000 population. While in 2nd Phase Action Plan as approved by the Centre, 451 tubewells, 122 ring-wells and 13 piped water supply schemes have been taken up aiming at benefiting 2,78,000 people. Malda Surface Water Project sanctioned at an estimated cost of Rs 88.48 crore is reported to have progressed with a view to benefit 10,00,000 people. Work of South 24 Parganas Surface Water Project at an estimated cost of Rs 232.84 crore has just started. This mega project is aimed at covering 26.58 lakh people in 8 blocks, 2 municipalities and 18 non-municipal towns in the district. Works on construction of intake structure and purification plant etc. are being taken up. As things are northern sector plant of Malda Project has been commissioned and the plant is able to cater the need of around 3,00,000 people in the adjoining area. Arsenic removal plants said to have been commissioned also at Sujapur, Gobardanga, Dhallit and Sadipur by the state government. What is said in government handout is one thing but the ground reality is totally otherwise.


Apart from different arsenic mitigation schemes under arsenic submission, safe drinking water supply is also effected through piped water schemes implemented under BMS and ARWSP funded jointly by the Centre and State. PHED claims that the joint effort has given a coverage of 28.5 lakh people as on December 1999. Once all the projects are completed approximately 36.5 lakh people are expected to be covered by 2000. Another proposed mega project called North 24 Parganas Arsenic Mitigation scheme awaiting approval of the Centre for the last 4 years is looking for World Bank assistance.


Besides PHED, Municipal Affairs Department has also claimed to have spent Rs 107 crore till December 1999 under the Mega City Water Scheme for Calcutta Metropolitan Area (ICMA) against total sanctioned allocation of Rs.236 crore. While crores of rupees could be spent by the state government in the name of arsenic mitigation schemes, reality tells a different story. People in millions in the state are still helpless being regularly the victims of slow poisoning through the substances like arsenic, fluoride and saline in ground water.


UNICEF has rendered assistance for distribution of portable testing kits for detection of Arsenic contamination in each affected block. A good number of experts associated with both Calcutta and Jadavpur Universities, All India Institute of Hygine & Public Health (AIIHPH), PHED etc. are carrying out arsenic related scientific research both in fundamental and applied forms. Some experts feel that conventional methods of removing arsenic from water by membrane filtration and chemical precipitation cannot be implemented easily in remote areas considering its high cost factor. Development of affordable technology through scientific research needs to be taken up so that it could be widely used by the people to combat the arsenic menace with lesser cost.