The government deigns to recognise the arsenic problem only in West Bengal and one district of Bihar. But recent studies prove the presence of the contaminant in several other states too: Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
As early as 1991, the Jadavpur University of West Bengal and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) discovered that arsenic was plaguing the Rajnandgoan district, which is now in Chhattisgarh. Of the 146 water samples tested by the university, 8.3 per cent had arsenic concentration above 50 parts per billion (ppb) -- five times more than the standard of 10 ppb. Why is Chhattisgarh a victim of arsenic when it is not a part of the Gangetic plain? Even after 13 years of the discovery of arsenic there, nobody has an answer to this question.
The next affected area to be discovered was in Bihar. Thanks to the efforts of Kuneshwar Nath Ojha, a schoolteacher in Kolkata, who belongs to Semria Ojha Patti village in Bhojpur district of Bihar, Jadavpur University stumbled upon the problem in 2002. Ojha's wife had developed skin lesions in 1985 and died of cancer six years later. The rest of his family members were suffering from liver ailments and skin lesions. Troubled, he got the water from his house tested in the laboratory of the university. The results showed that the water had arsenic concentration of 814 ppb. A further analysis by Jadavpur University of the village tubewells showed that 56.8 per cent residents of the village were drinking water with arsenic concentration above 50 ppb. Ironically, the village is just 50 kilometres from Patna -- the capital of Bihar.
The university's scholars did not limit their study in Bihar to Semria Ojha Patti. Since 2002, 237 villages of the Bhojpur and Buxar districts, situated along the banks of Ganga, have been studied extensively. It has been found that 202 of the 237 villages are affected. The results show that 39 per cent of the 9,596 water samples tested had arsenic levels above the permissible limit. The results support the theory of areas near the Ganga being prone to arsenic contamination.
Interestingly, in 2003-04, UNICEF conducted a study in Paschimi Champaran, Purba Champaran, Sitamarhi, Madhubani, Supaul, Araria, Kishanganj, Purnea and Katihar -- districts of Bihar bordering the Terai region, which according to Jadavpur University could be contaminated. The agency found that of the 3,152 samples tested, 4.9 per cent had arsenic concentration above 10 ppb.
During 2004, the university conducted a study in 17 villages of Shahibganj district of Jharkhand and tested 1,024 water samples. It found that 30 per cent samples had arsenic levels above 10 ppb, 19.04 per cent above 50 ppb, 26 per cent had above 100 ppb and eight per cent had 300 ppb. Of the 320 villagers screened, 21.8 per cent had skin lesions. These findings do indicate the dynamics of the arsenic menace -- how varied the contamination levels are in just one district.
Assam has turned out to be another blip in the arsenic radar. During 2004, a study was conducted by Jadavpur University in 56 villages of two blocks of Dhemaji and Karimganj districts. The total number of water samples tested was 241. Arsenic concentration above 10 ppb was found in 42.3 per cent samples, above 50 ppb in 19.1 per cent samples and above 300 ppb in 2.1 per cent samples.
West Bengal is the most affected state in India. As per a study conducted by the Jadavpur University, arsenic concentration above 50 ppb has been found in the water in nine of the 18 districts of the state. Total water samples analysed from the nine affected districts were 129,552. Out of these, 49.6 per cent contain arsenic above 10 ppb and 24.7 per cent above 50 ppb. Nearly 6.5 million people in the state are drinking water with arsenic levels above 50 ppb.