04 Nov 2016

Book review

Book Title: Socio-Economic Analysis of Arsenic Contamination of Groundwater in West Bengal

Authors: Abhijit Das, Joyashree Roy, Sayantan Chakrabarti

Publisher: Indian Studies in Business and Economics, Springer

In the pursuit of objectivity academic literature usually does not personify the challenges that are being faced on the ground and the graveness of situations. One such situation that many academic papers have been published on is that of Arsenic Contamination in West Bengal. The book on Socio-Economic Analysis of Arsenic Contamination in GroundWater in West Bengal blends the human element of the situation in balance with academic rigour. The book assesses the problem of arsenic within a conceptual framework framed by environmental economics and consumer behavior.

The book reviews the two decades of development strategies through technology deployment and mitigation programs for arsenic, which failed to achieve the desired outcome. Why is it so? What has been the learning from experiences that have been implemented across the last two decades? What have been the mistakes, have we learnt from our mistakes?

These are some of the questions that this book addresses through a blend of case studies and scientific information viewed from a socio-economic lens. Through case studies the book provides a human face to percentages and numbers suffering from consuming arsenic contaminated water in West Bengal.

The book begins with highlighting the micro and macro dimensions of the problem. It addresses the expanse of governmental responses and also the larger social challenges that communities are dealing with.

Arsenic is known to be most prevalent in shallow aquifers and harmful in concentration more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) (as stated by World Health Organization (WHO)). Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) still follows the permissible limit of 50ppb.  While there are many reports and numbers compiled on the plight affected by people, the level of information shared with them is limited. The information that is present is also limited, such that it defines the problem but does not give solutions. The authors have mentioned how through consecutive visits to the same region they have witnessed deteriorating health conditions and even death due to arsenic in water. People don’t want to talk nor have their pictures taken anymore!

The health impact of consuming arsenic laced water is stated to be a growing medical crisis faced in many regions of West Bengal. Does it impact everyone’s health in the same manner? The answer stated here is, no. While one village might be reeling under health crisis and rising death toll the neighboring village might remain unaffected. The book also outlines that for those affected by arsenic, treatment is a dreaded aspect due to far away treatment centers, high financial burden and social impediment to access treatment.

So what is the population at risk from arsenic? There are differing numbers, one study puts this at 5 million, another assessment by Government of West Bengal (GoWB) puts this number at 28.7 million. The National Institute of Hydrology puts the number at 16.26 million. While the GoWB states 8 districts are at risk, School of Environmental Studies (SoES), Jadavpur University states 12 districts are at risk. This lack of clarity is also seen as another indicator of the disparity in convergence.

The government response, stated here, has largely been reactive and based on push from mass media. Media along with government communication programs has played a role in building awareness but the level to which information has percolated is relatively very low. Based on review conducted by the authors, 17% of villages claimed that they received information from official programs. A larger percentage of more than 40% mentioned that they received information from relatives or neighbors.

Are we learning by doing? The answer then again is, no. Filtration technologies, have consistently failed to address the problems of power supply and the problem of local supply chain mechanisms to provide repair and replacement services. There is also an important question of sustainability of these structures- for how long and at what price will they continue providing safe drinking water?

There is also the longstanding technology culprit- hand-pumps. Hand-pumps tap into arsenic bearing shallow aquifers and are used as a prevalent source of drinking water in West Bengal. While this practice may have reduced water borne diseases, this groundwater or “devils water”-as it was initially known, has claimed much more than it has given. The book also gives a background of the different theories that are said to bring out arsenic in water. The theories are many but the problem remains the same.

Further the authors also highlight the challenges of social customs and strata’s that come into play when accessing water and limit availability. Small indicators are also prevalent to alert about arsenics presence within hand-pumps. Red color forming at the base of hand-pumps is a simple visual indicator of presence of arsenic in water.

The authors, through these narratives, reach out to anyone interested, to build knowledge and action based on past experiences and learn from them. This book is an effort meant to enhance learning so as to mitigate the high health and life cost that arsenic contamination is claiming within West Bengal and other affected regions.