victims of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh exuded optimism as proceedings of the case against the British Geological Survey (bgs) got underway in the uk recently. The case was filed in the year 2002 and has come up for hearing in the High Court in London (see: "Not testing the waters", November 30, 2002).
Binod Sutradhar and Lucky Begum, residents of Bangladesh's Brahmanbaria region, had hauled bgs to court. They contended that in 1992 bgs did not test for arsenic in the waters of wells dug under projects of international agencies. These projects were conducted during the period 1983 to 1992. The venture was funded by the United Nations Children's Fund (unicef) and World Bank among others.
This case could set an important precedent that might enable many more arsenic victims in Bangladesh to get justice. "We hope it will force international bodies to follow international standards when they work in developing countries," says Sharmin Murshid, chief executive officer of Brotee, a Bangladesh-based non-profit organisation. Murshid feels that if the plaintiffs win the case, the compensation so awarded would cover treatment costs as well as help them locate other sources of safe water.
"The judgement is likely to be given towards the end of April," reveals Boz Michalowska of Leigh, Day & Co -- the London-based law firm which, along with Alexander Harris, is fighting the case on behalf of Bangladesh's arsenic-affected people.
The Legal Services Commission, a government body which aims to increase the access to legal services in London, is taking care of litigation costs. The initial data collection for the case was collected and compiled by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (bela), Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (blast), and Brotee. "The strong medical evidence such as blood and skin samples of the victims will strengthen their contention," says Shahriar Pardeen, assistant director, blast.
On its part, bgs has challenged the grounds on which the case stands. According to it, wells were dug by different agencies like unicef and it had only tested the water. bgs further claims that as there was no awareness about arsenic contamination in the area at that time, it did not check for its presence.
The Natural Environment Research Council (nerc), bgs' parent body, also maintains that water from the tubewells was supposed to be used for agricultural purposes and not for drinking.
"Considering that the legal process is so complicated, the fact that the London court is pursuing the case is in itself a victory," observes Syeda Rizwana Hasan, director, bela.
Meanwhile, activists from Brotee, along with the victims and doctors, have filed another case in the Dhaka High Court. The case is against Bangladesh's public health department, non-governmental organisation bureau and water ministry. They are seeking that the sinking of tubewells be halted. A final decision on the matter is yet to be taken.
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