Quenching Thirst with Poison

Sangita Jha

Chemical contamination of water is casuing serious health problems for people 

Pamphlets on the walls from Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh to Balrampur on the Nepal border have one common selling point: Get assured treatment of cancer. In Punjab, people seek from their representatives advanced medical institution to treat cancer. Punjab has begun reporting cases of uranium contamination. A large number of cancer patients in their advanced stages come to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi in the hope of getting cured from cancer. The story is not about cases of cancer but an alarming rise in the extent of the geographical areas struggling with serious chemical contamination. The malaise is much strongly rooted in the rural India.

Union minister of rural development Jairam Ramesh is candid enough to admit that in the last six decades the states have only used the Central funds for rural drinking water for installing handpumps. While people throng their representatives to win handpumps in their areas, they hardly paid any attention to the kind of water they were drinking.

The chemical contamination of the ground water is one of the foremost challenge that the Centre and the states are faced with. The Centre has zeroed in on Arsenic, Fluoride, Iron and salinity for the time being and is making attempts to turn the tide against an end number of diseases, which are taking a heavy toll of human lives.

In one of the first response, the Centre has earmarked Rs 525 crores in the financial year 2012-12 for improvement of water quality. Also, in a bid that the focus is not lost, the Centre has identified 60 districts spread over in five major states struggling with serious water contamination to begin with.

The Centre’s move was being formulated even while reports from Bihar claimed that more than 200 children have so far died this year due to cases of Acute Encephalitis (AE). Some months ago the eastern UP, particularly the Gorakhpur region, and Bihar reported alarming cases of deaths of children due to Japanese Encephalitis (JE). Even while the state governments have been vaccinating as many children as possible against JE and AE, with the Centre providing the vaccines, not much attention was being paid to the cause of the ailments, which have been identified as poor sanitation and contaminated ground water.

The Centre has chosen 20 districts in eastern UP and 15 in Bihar as part of the focused approach on improving the water quality. Among the 60 districts, 10 are in West Bengal, 10 in Assam and 5 in Tamil Nadu. “This is the first time that we are going to deal with the causes of the JE and AE,” said Ramesh.

The districts in UP which have been included are Azamgarh, Behraich, Balia, Balrampur, Basti, Deoria, Gonda, Goraokhpur, Hardoi, Kanpur (Dehat), Kusinagar, Lakhimpur Kheri, Maharajganj, Mau, Rae Bareli, Saharanpur, Sant Kabir Nagar, Shravasti, Sidharth Nagar and Sitapur.

These are the places where every year hundreds of children die of JE and AE, while walls in these cities are all pasted with pamphlets promising cure from cancer. In Bihar the districts which have been included are Araria, Darbhanga, Gaya, Gopalganj, Jehanabad, Nawada, West and East Champaran, Patna, Samastipur, Saran, Siwan and Vaishali.

One similarity among the UP and Bihar districts is that most of them have people dependent on ground water.

While the chemical ground water contamination is not just confined to these five states, the situation is estimated to be quite worse there.

As per an official estimate of the Ministry of rural development and drinking water, arsenic contamination has severly affected 1330 habitations in West Bengal, 1200 in Assam and 940 in Bihar. Further, the fluoride contamination has affected 7500 habitations in Rajsthan, 2500 in Karnatka, 2700 in Bihar, 2300 in UP and 822 in West Bengal.

The iron contamination, which is, however, not as harmful as others, has affected 14,000 habitations in Assam, 12,000 in Odhisa, 11,000 in Bihar and 5400 in Tripura. Further, salinity, which is rapidly on the rise, has taken under its grip 19,000 habitations in Rajsthan, 2027 in UP, 660 in Karnatka, 1,000 in Odhisa.

Out of the total 17 lakh rural habitations in the country, the states have together reported 3500 habitations in the grip of arsenic contamination, 17000 with fluoride contamination, 54000 with iron contamination and 23,000 facing cases of salinity.

Though Punjab has reported cases of uranium contamination in ground water, the state government has not yet sent any proposal to the Centre on the ways to deal with the situation. “When the state government sends a proposal, the Centre will promptly respond to the demands,” stated Ramesh.

Eventually the governments will have to bring the piped water to each of the households to save lives. In fact the Centrally sponsored Saranda Action Plan, which is intended to bring development benefits to the tribals who have recently been freed from the clutches of the naxals, the Centre along with the state government is making it mandatory to reach out piped potable water to each households.

Realising the gravity of the problem, the Centre has agreed in principle to avail a grant of 500 million US dollars from the World Bank for the expansion of the rural drinking water. However, the scale of the challenge may suggest that the government may have to invest in many multiples of the World Bank to effectively deal with the fast expanding chemical contamination of the ground water.

Diagnosing the malaise, Ramesh said that since there were no separate budgetary head for improvement of water quality, the states spent all these decades mostly on installing handpumps or creating sources of dinking water. Therefore, five per cent of the total annual budget of the rural drinking water (Rs 10,300 crore for 2012-13) would be only for improvement of water quality and its share would keep rising in the coming years, said Ramesh.

A beginning appears to have been made in fight against the fast expansion of chemical contamination of the ground water but clearly the challenge is much bigger.

(This article was first published in Sopan Step.)

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