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Ground Report: Arsenic in Groundwater Has Been Killing People in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh

"The arsenic poison has killed a generation already, and the next generation has been staring at the death.”

In Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia, eight-year-old Hirtik, who studies in the third grade, took this reporter to the doorstep of his tiny house, where he lives with his father and uncle Bajrangi Pandey. Bajrangi has been suffering from arsenic contamination. He looks fragile and weak. He said, “Just after a few years of my birth, spots appeared on my body. Since then, the condition has only worsened.”

One of Bajrangi’s children died a few years ago. His other two children often fall ill. He said, “The doctor has informed us that it is because of drinking arsenic-contaminated water.”

Bajrangi Pandey.

He pointed angrily at the yellowish water and asked, “Don’t we deserve at least clean drinking water?”

As per a recent study conducted at the TERI School of Advanced Studies, as many as 2.34 crore people in 40 districts of Uttar Pradesh are exposed to high levels of arsenic in groundwater. The worst affected are Balia, Barabankhi, Gorakhpur, Ghazipur, Gonda, Faizabad and Lakhimpur Kheri. Most of the affected districts are situated on the floodplains of the Ganga, Rapti and Ghaghara rivers.

Thirty-one-year-old Raj Kumar Pandey, a resident of Ramgarh village situated at a thirty-minute drive away from Ballia city, says his father died in 2015, “I lost my father Banarsi Pandey (47) due to toxic levels of arsenic in the groundwater which caused several infections in his stomach”, adding, “Many in the village died at the same age”.

Raj Kumar Pandey.

He said that in every election, politicians had made promises of ensuring clean drinking water to the village, but till date, nothing has changed. They only want “Raj Tilak” — political power.

He said that they were forced to buy RO (Reverse osmosis) water from the market at higher rates. The Jal Nigam had built a water tank in the village in 2008, which was filled using groundwater but it does not provide sufficient water. The tank often goes dry for two to three days. Raj Kumar, who works as a daily wage labourer, said, “Twenty litres of water costs us twenty-twenty five rupees, which only puts the extra financial burden on our livelihoods”.

Slow poisoning

Arsenic contamination of groundwater along the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border of the Ganga belt has been an issue for decades, and people in the area continue to die of it. In Ballia alone, 310 villages are exposed to high levels of arsenic. As per estimates, 150 to 500 microgram arsenic is found in per litre of water, which is 15 to 50 times more than the acceptable limit. This has caused severe health issues, and many in the region suffer from arsenicosis and diseases like lung, bladder and kidney cancer.

The World Health Organisation established ten micrograms of arsenic per litre as the permissible concentration in drinking water. The government of India, however, says that 50 micrograms per litre are acceptable.

Over thousands of years, arsenic sediment has been washing down from the Himalayas with the Ganga water. In the plains, arsenic has been leaching into the grounds. Before 1970, the region had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Ineffective water purification, sewage system and flooding exacerbated these problems. As a solution, UNICEF and the World Bank advocated the use of wells to tap into deeper groundwater. Millions of wells were constructed.

Contaminated drinking water.

Consequently, the infant mortality rate reduced drastically. But another problem set in. Indiscriminate pumping out of groundwater, not only for domestic use but also for farming, saw the water table sink. This, in turn, increased the concentration of arsenic in the groundwater.

The Gangetic belt is an extremely fertile region. Large-scale agriculture takes place here. Rice, which is the primary crop grown in these areas, is water intensive. The villagers fear that the contaminated groundwater used to irrigate crops could make its way into the food chain.

Meanwhile, villagers are unhappy with the efforts of Jal Nigam too. They said that pipelines and overhead tanks do not function properly.

Jal Nigam office, Ballia.

Authorities blame it on inadequate funds. Sanjeev Kumar*, a junior engineer at the Jal Nigam in Ballia, said that they are trying their best to improve the condition. The Jal Nigam had built the water tank in the village and set up at least 36 arsenic removal units in affected villages. He added, however, “Unawareness and lack of proper medical care have only worsened the situation.”

He further said, “Household arsenic removal units are no solution. Long-term projects are required to address the issue, but it involves a huge cost.”

Lack of healthcare

Despite the problem persisting for several decades, not a single cancer unit has been established in the area. According to a research paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2017, “Infants and children show fewer severe arsenical skin lesions than adults; however, they are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of arsenic than adults. A high intake of arsenic through drinking water doubles the likelihood of age-specific health-effects, as the daily water intake per unit of body weight of an infant is three to four times greater than that of an adult. Among more than 130 million Asians exposed to arsenic above the WHO standard of 10 micrograms per litre, an estimated 20 million are less than 11 years of age.”

Skin specialist Dr B Narayan of  the Sadar Hospital — one of the biggest public hospitals in the region — who has worked in the arsenic-affected areas, told NewsCentral24x7, “Hyperkeratosis on palms and soles, macular eruptions over the chest and the abdomen with mosaic pattern and squamous cell carcinoma — which is advanced form of cancer — are common skin problems among those people who are exposed to high arsenic concentrations in their drinking water.”

“Lack of medical facilities is only making the situation worse. Some diseases are curable, but we do not have drugs and laboratories to detect it within curable time”.

Chief Medical Officer of the hospital, Dr Shiv Parsad, said, “For 2500 to 4000 patients we only have nine clinical doctors with 293 essential medicines that the government provides. There is no facility available to treat arsenic-related issues in the hospital; we refer such patients to Banaras.”

The Sadar Hospital, Ballia.

NewsCentral24x7 reached to the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party’s office in Ballia, where many office-bearers were gathered to celebrate International Yoga Day. The newly-elected MP Virendra Singh Mast, however, was in Delhi. NewsCentral24x7 tried to contact him multiple times and will update the story once a response is received.

Pointing at his uncle who has been unwell for many years, Hirtik said, “The arsenic poison has killed a generation already, and the next generation has been staring at the death.”

“This is not a good place to live. I have to leave this place as soon as possible. I’m studying hard so that I can get a job in other parts of the country”.

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