It is one thing for scientific theories on arsenic contamination to conflict with each other. But it is another when it plays out in real life. We know that arsenic interweaves with the geology and hydrology of the place where it is found, or not. It is also known that its intensity varies. Its spread may be extensive, but it may be dispersed in a region. Indeed, looking for arsenic in a place the size of the Gangetic-Brahmaputra basin is like looking for needles in a haystack. But look we must.
It is equally clear that denial will get us nowhere. Government cannot continue to bury its head in the sand on this issue. This is a human tragedy and it demands a response that is concerted and committed.
Firstly, we need a project for widescale monitoring. But it has to be done seriously. It cannot be done like the mystical Central Ground Water Board survey that nobody can lay their hands on. It cannot also be done like the great Ballia experiment, in which samples sent to the laboratory for testing, from the villages where the disease is evident, were found 'clean'. The point is that monitoring must be done for a reason. It has to answer: why are people dying? If it is not arsenic in the water, then what is the cause of their illness? It cannot be buried in the prevarication and apathy of our government agencies.
We must map the scale of the problem. We must do this keeping in mind the people who are affected. The monitoring should begin with the people. It should be done by them, with them and, most of all, for them. This is the massive public health challenge.
Good way out
Secondly, we must recognise that arsenic is more about water management strategies, and less about technologies to clean the toxin. The reason there is arsenic in the water, which people drink, is because they have become dependent on groundwater, in a region that is blessed with water on the surface -- in rivers, in lakes, in ponds and in the rain that can be captured and stored for us.
The arsenic crisis is a direct fallout of a public health imperative. When policymakers found surface waterbodies caused massive outbreaks of water-borne diseases, instead of tackling contamination they pushed people towards groundwater. Surface waterbodies fell into greater neglect as handpumps became the preferred option to source drinking water. Now, we have come full cycle: handpumps (India mark II and others) are the problem and the solution lies in going back to surface waterbodies and shallow dugwells.
Solutions do exist. In Bangladesh, for instance, mitigation efforts include cleaning traditional ponds that were being used to rear fish. The pond sand filter is a resultant invention: it can be installed on an edge of a pond or the bank of a river and uses simple material such as brick chips, sand and coarse aggregates like gravel to clean the water of mud and pathogens. It can reduce pathogens by two orders of magnitude.
Rainwater harvesting is another option. These areas, we repeat, are rain-rich. Collecting water from rooftops for drinking, or channelling the rain into shallow bodies or even dugwells for household use is very much on. But this will have to be combined with good sanitation practices, so that human excreta does not pollute waterbodies.
Groundwater provides 90 per cent of this country's drinking water today. But there is no one who is capable or able to monitor and supervise its quantity of use, let alone quality of misuse. This is essential. The tragedy of Ballia is the tragedy of an unseen resource -- buried deep in the ground -- which is extracted at will. Arsenic is similar to another problem, fluoride in groundwater (see box: Another scourge). These water toxins are crippling India. We cannot allow our water to become our poison.
But this poison is not as deadly as the callousness of the government, which neglects the diseased. When the government denies the existence of the problem, the poison will spread. That is what we really need to worry about.