Uttar Pradesh 2017

Arsenic in vein, a village atrophies

There is little to distinguish Tiwaritola from other hamlets in the backward region of eastern Uttar Pradesh. Awful roads, poor sanitation, unreliable power supply, river embankment woes, unbridled poverty and unemployment scar its infrastructure and social landscape. But one trait gives it additional notoriety. The drinking water sources here are heavily contaminated with arsenic.

The bodies of the residents of Tiwaritola, which is less than 300 metres from the Ganga along the U.P.-Bihar border, bear testimony to the toxicity in the water. Nearly every person you encounter suffers from melanosis (skin lesions or white marks that develop on their chest, abdomen or thighs). Others suffer from more serious ailments.

Multiple ailments

One such person is Subash Pandey, 55, a Brahmin who earns his living by offering priestly services. For the past 15 years, Mr. Pandey has been ailing from arsenic-induced conditions. His eyesight has gone poor, he feels breathless, and finds it difficult to walk for long. But he fears it could or may have developed into something worse: long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking water and food can even lead to lung cancer. “We are landless. Our bodies are our only resources. If I cannot move around, how will we survive? What else could I want but an aliment-free life?” asks Mr. Subash.

Another resident, Akshayvat Pandey, is much younger but suffers from similar symptoms. He pulls off his shirt to reveal long white marks and spots on his torso. “Imagine what it would have done to my insides! If we store water in a container, after a while it turns red,” says Mr. Akshayvat. In this part of the country, arsenic poisoning also has other social ramifications. “Our daughters don’t get married off easily if they have those ugly marks,” says Sashi Bushan Pandey.

Way above limits

According to a 2012 report by two Kanpur-based researchers, published in the Journal of Environmental Biology, arsenic was first reported in drinking water in Ballia in 2003. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set the permissible limit for arsenic in drinking water at 5 ppm, in Ballia, over 300 villages have arsenic above that limit, with one third having concentration levels above 100 ppm.

The scare has drawn expert teams to Ballia from all over. The issue was also raised in the State Assembly. As remedial steps, the previous Samajwadi Party (SP) government installed filter plants in some of the affected villages. A joint study of the problem was also conducted by Jamia Milia Islamia University and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) five years ago, while an Australian NGO devised a mobile app to test the presence of arsenic in water.

Villagers are still in search of a permanent solution. “No government did anything to solve the problem. They come here, survey and go away,” says Mr. Subash.

Around 1.2 lakh people could be affected by arsenic in 55 villages of three blocks of Ballia, the report cited above says. In Ballia district, 30-40% net cultivable land is under irrigation and more than 60% of this irrigation is met from drinking water, thus the risk of arsenic-contaminated water being used is high.

All contaminated

Tiwaritola falls under Belhari block’s Gangapur Gram Sabha, one of the many surveyed by the U.P. Department of Rural Development for arsenicosis. Since groundwater sources, hand pumps and wells are contaminated with arsenic, residents rely on government-installed water filters — arsenic removal units — for safe water. However, this equipment is poorly maintained and the alumina required for it is not supplied on time, say locals. “When the machine runs out of the filter material [alumina], we have to wait for days before it is replenished. There is nobody to take care of them,” says Gopal Shah Gond, who has developed swollen heels and marks on his arm due to arsenic-poisoning.

Ballia votes on March 4.

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Printable version | Oct 30, 2020 11:37:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/uttar-pradesh-2017/arsenic-in-vein-a-village-atrophies/article17388850.ece

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