"Calcutta is sifting on a time bomb "

DIPANKAR CHAKRABORTI, director, School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University has done significant work among people affected by Arsenic poisoning in West Bengal. According to him even Parts of Calcutta are affected. One of the ways to combat the problem is to harvest rainwater, he says. At a consultation meeting on arsenic poisoning organised by the World Health Organization (WHO), he spoke to PRITI KUMARI and SONIA KAPOOR

Published: Sunday 15 June 1997

On when the problem of arsenic poisoning started in West Bengal:
The problem started in 1978, but the first official medical diagnosis certificate was released only in September, 1982.

On the current status of arsenic poisoning in West Bengal:
Till April, 1997 arsenic poisoning has affected eight districts comprising 59 blocks and 840 villages. The population of these districts is 38 million and the area is 38,000 square kilometres. This does not mean that 38 million people are suffering from arsenic poisoning. But they are at the risk of developing symptoms of arsenic poisoning.

On whether the city of Calcutta is also affected:
This is also an urban problem. just near my house, an electronic engineer had his finger amputated due to carcinoma arising from arsenic poisoning. Calcutta is sitting on a time bomb. The southern parts of Calcutta are severely affected.

On the symptoms of arsenic poisoning:
The symptoms are melanosis (a disorder in the body's production of melanin), diffused melanosis, keratosis (a hard or horny growth), hyperkeratosis (thickening of the hard outer layer of the skin), non-pitting odema (abnormal accumulation of fluid in the tissues, causing puffiness), gangrene (death of a tissue in one part of the body), skin cancer and internal cancers. Recent reports indicate that internal cancers are more common than skin cancer. In the villages, we do not get to know this because people are neither treated nor hospitalised and therefore it is difficult to know whether they are affected or not.

On his concerns regarding the arsenic problem:
It's a pity When all over the world people are aware of the problem of arsenic poisoning, villagers in India, even today, do not know whether they are suffering from it. The government of West Bengal has got about Rs 800 crore so far. The Japanese government is going to give Rs 350 crore for this purpose. But if you go to the villages, people say that only recently they became aware that they were suffering from arsenic poisoning. If the government had done something from the very beginning, so: many lives would have been saved.

On where the money is being spent by the government
Only the government knows. They only can tell you about that.

On whether the state government is likely to do anything at all:
Until now nothing was being done. But nA they are tryingAThere should be a better and systematic way of working. But we know how our Indian S@S'tern works. Ultimately, you will see that the people will do something about the problem. Maybe, Rs. 350 crore will be useless. To give birth to a child is not a problem, but to raise the child is a biggest problem. Similarly, to set up the water supply system with Rs 350 crore is no problem, but to maintain the system & a problem. Who will take up the maintenance charge? In West Bengal, we have 2,000 mm of rainfall, 4,000 sq kni of wetlands and flooded river basins; we need to utilise watershed management. On whether the problem of arsenic contamination in water is a natural or human-made problem.

I would say it is both. West Bengal has a pyrite sediment under water, which is rich in arsenic. As long as the pyrite sediment remains within water, it does not decompose. But when the water level goes down considerably, pyrite decomposes and leaches out arsenic. Because millions and millions of gallons of ground- water have been withdrawn for cultivation throughout the year, the pyrite sediment has got decomposed. The decomposition started in West Bengal, travelling eastward up to 34 districts of Bangladesh, affecting about 50 million people.

On whether there is any controversy in the scientific community regarding this theory:
There is no controversy. In London, there is a similar problem. But there, the pyrite is rich in something else, not arsenic. On his recommendations to the WHO, First, make the people living in villages aware about the problem of arsenic poisoning. I once asked a villager how the colour of his skin became black. He said that one night when he went out to urinate, the devil urinated on his body. Someone else said that when he was digging a tubewell, he was bitten by a snake which emitted a poison that made his skin black.

The first thing is to educate the villagers that this is not a curse from God. In the villages, people think it is a contagious disease and wholly isolate a family afflicted with it, Secondly, in each village there are some tubewells which are free from arsenic. These should be marked out separately by painting them, so that the villagers do not use the contaminated ones. Thirdly, we should make the villagers understand that they have to play a vital role in maintaining the tubewells of the villages and cannot completely rely on the government. Fourthly, we need to harvest rainwater effectively. In West Bengal, it rains for seven months. If we conserve excess rainwater, then we would not have to extract groundwater during these months. We need a system to properly conserve excess rainwater.

On WHO's response to his recommenclations:
I have suggested all these things. Let us see what they finally recommend.

On how the SES (School of Envimmental Studies) is helping local communities:
Sixteen research fellows from SES are working on arsenic alone. Along with them are arsenic patients between the ages of 20-30 years. I have bought a bicycle for each of them and I am paying them Rs 1,000 per month. Our door-to-door survey shows that about 2.5 million people are drinking arsenic contaminated water and 200,000 people are suffering from arsenic skin lesions. SEs has already spent 21 lakh by doing free analysis of water. We have announced in the television, radio and newspapers that the analysis is free; so now, you find villagers coming to us with bottles of water for arsenic testing.

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