A scourge called arsenic

By Ritu Gupta
Published: Thursday 30 June 2005

-- Silent Killer produced and directed by Dhananjoy Mandal 28 minutes

What happens when the very necessities for life -- food and water -- turn killers? Dhananjoy Mandal asks this question in A silent killer. His interlocutors: arsenic- affected people in West Bengal. Mandal also relies on statistics to depict the scale of the menace. It has assumed horrific proportions: 28 million out of 80 million people in West Bengal are in the clutch of arsenic. The film is an eye-opener for those uninformed about the scourge. But it has very little for those acquainted with the reality.

The documentary's main weakness is that introduces viewers into a key aspect of the problem and then leaves them longing for more. For example, at one point we are told that arsenic originates in the Rajmahal hills or in the Himalaya. But, then, how did this element get into the aquifers and how exactly did it contaminate groundwater? We are left yearning for answers.

Moreover, the film has a few inaccuracies. For example, at another point in the documentary, India's limit of arsenic in water is stated as 0.05 milligrammes per litre (mg/l). The director is perhaps oblivious that in September 2003, the Bureau of Indian Standards had revised this limit to 0.01 mg/l.

What are the solutions to the arsenic menace? Mandal believes that providing treated surface water through pipes is the only way out. But the film-maker seems to have overlooked other viable solutions such as rainwater harvesting and reviving traditional surface water bodies. These are systems that communities can work on their own. Let's not forget that piped water supply is replete with problems such as leaking pipes.

These inadequacies notwithstanding, the movie does depict the pathos caused by the world's worst mass poisoning. It also shows that arsenic in not a just a rural problem, but has pervaded into urban areas -- a fact not given much importance. Mandal drives home this point in an interesting manner. The film shows vendors hawking water in Malda, West Bengal. But then its only for the rich; the poor cannot afford it. The documentary ends on a sad note, stating that for most arsenic-affected people, there is no helping hand.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.