It’s a hard life in India’s ‘Arsenic Belt’
Ten years ago, when 62-year-old Devanti Devi of Tilak Rai ka Hatha, a small village on the banks of the Ganges in Buxar district developed a couple of hard spots on her hands, she thought they would go away on their own. Today, her hands and the soles of her feet are full of such spots. “I feel like I’m walking on small pointy rocks,” she says. Other members of her eight-member household, including her five children under 19 and husband Jagnath Yadav also started suffering from myriad gastric ailments ranging from indigestion, bloating to severe stomach pain. The culprit turned out to be the water from their bore well.
It transpired that most water sources in Tilak Rai ka Hatha, like other villages in India’s infamous 'Arsenic Belt’, were heavily contaminated by poisonous levels of arsenic and iron. A cancer research organisation in Patna tested several water samples from the area and confirmed this. The use of this arsenic and iron rich water for drinking, cooking, animal husbandry and agriculture had caused, over time, not only an unusual uptick in cancers and skin diseases like keratosis (the skin ailment Devanti Devi was eventually diagnosed with) but also a build up of contaminants in the milk and cow dung used for fuel. Devanti Devi and her family realised they were not only ingesting arsenic through their drinking water and milk – they were inhaling it in the smoke from the dung cakes they used as fuel. The iron in the water imparted to it a bad odour as well as left a yellowish red cast on their kitchen utensils. The breathlessness they often experienced was due to the inhalation of smoke with a high arsenic content. Over time, they all ran the risk of developing either cancer or severe lung diseases. Moreover, doctors also suspected that arsenic exposure could increase the chances of DNA damage.
“We don’t want our next generation to be affected by this poisonous water,” says Devanti Devi. “So, when an NGO installed a water purifier in our house for Rs 2500, we were relieved.” However, this system provided only patchy relief as it would often get blocked due to heavy deposition of arsenic and other impurities. Some time ago, the government installed a Water ATM in the village but that too stopped working for the want of regular maintenance.
Contaminated water is not Devanti Devi’s only WASH woe. Her daughters and she do not have any toilet access. “Every morning, we have to wake up at least one hour before the men so that the fields are empty,” she says. “If we oversleep, we have to walk at least a kilometre away to find a secluded spot…” The fear of wild animals ensures they do not step out alone, but in larger groups. When on their period, women here suffer the most, she says. “They have to go out several times,” she says, “and there is no place for them to dispose off their sanitary waste.”
This is why WaterAid’s project to bring clean water and WASH infrastructure in the village gives her hope. “This will improve our health, living standards and the life expectancy,” she says. “We’ll save the money we’re currently spending on medication and perhaps become more efficient workers…” Most of all, having experienced the daily stresses that arise from drinking contaminated water, she is looking forward to the peace of mind this will bring.