"Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, 'a magician, a visionary'. He is one who is not only endowed with a pragmatic vision, but takes all his ideas to the level of implementation. The Sulabh think-tank has ensured capacity skill development in a huge way." - Prof KJ Nath
Sulabh International Social Service Organisation (SISSO) has embarked on a new people centric and decentralised approach to mitigate the acute hardship being encountered by the rural population in West Bengal and elsewhere in India owing to arsenic contamination of ground water and bacteriological contamination of the surface water, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of SISSO told an august gathering in Kolkata recently.
Sulabh, which drew an inspiration from a French organisation (1001 Fontaines) that worked in Cambodia and Madagascar, decided to go ahead with implementing some pilot projects in a few villages of West Bengal being plagued by the arsenic menace, Dr Pathak said while addressing a national seminar on “Sanitary Protection & Upgradation of Traditional Surface Water Sources in Rural West Bengal For Producing Sulabh Safe Water for Drinking and Cooking Purpose: An Innovative Approach”.
Explaining the purpose behind holding the seminar which provided some solutions as well to the threat of arsenic, Dr Pathak sought to highlight that ensuring the provision of safe water to the community is as necessary as the target for making the country open defecation free.
Stressing that an integrated approach has to be taken for improving sanitation, along with the provision of safe water, he said without this, comprehensive and optimal health impact from WASH projects would elude the government.
In this context, Dr Pathak raised the issue of large-scale contamination of groundwater with arsenic/fluoride over a wide swathe of West Bengal and despite governmental efforts, people in a significant number of villages are still not having any access to arsenic free safe drinking water.
Hence, Sulabh has undertaken some pilot projects which would cover such villages as afflicted by arsenic, fluoride and micro-biological contamination of ground and surface water.
“The basic idea is to empower the villagers in entrepreneurships and technology adaptation so that they could apply appropriate technology for upgrading the quality of water collected from traditional surface water sources and supply the same to the doorstep of the rural populace,” he said.
Presently, there are many a perennial surface water source like ponds/rivers/lakes/spring water/dug wells in the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Odisha and many other states in the Ganga-Brahmaputra Basin.
Once properly tapped and treated, it would go a long way in the conservation and utilisation of the traditional surface water sources in the rural areas which are otherwise being grossly abused by the locals.
Sulabh Jal & its sustainability
What has given SISSO a huge strength in its drive is the fact that the pilot studies in Madhusudankati (North 24 Parganas), Midnapur and Haridaspur have already demonstrated the technical and financial feasibility of the “Sublah Jal” model and its sustainability in the long run.
On top of this, encouraged by the pilot project in these villages, many people-based organisations have been taking up identical programmes in their villages with technical support from Sulabh International Academy of Environmental Sanitation & Public Health (SIAES & PH), a subsidiary of SISSO.
“The innovative approach, it appears, will bring out a revolutionary change in the community water supply systems in the rural areas,” Dr Pathak hoped. “In fact, it would be nothing short of a social revolution if the villagers themselves could start producing and supplying safe and pure water to the community at a price less than Re One per litre.”
But why there is a crying need for safe drinking water?
Dr Pathak has a wonderful answer: “Akash, Dharti, Jal, Vayu and Agni (sky, earth, water, air and fire) – these five elements build our lives. If one of the vital ingredients like water is contaminated, then zeal to live ceases. We often talk and are afraid of the destruction of earth; it will be either full of water or without water when the earth will really perish,” Dr Pathak observed amidst a roaring thumping from the audience.
Sulabh’s technology has already been implemented in Ghana, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
What is equally interesting, and which Dr Pathak shared with the audience, is the fact that during his recent visit to the United States, the Sulabh founder faced queries about ‘Sulabh Jal’. “I was told that all the cities in America have safe drinking water; but in many rural areas of the USA, the picture is different and we’ve been approached for installing our plant there. That’s our success,” a beaming Dr Pathak stated.
Dr Pathak has affected a miracle : Prof KJ Nath
Describing Dr Pathak ‘a magician, a visionary’, Professor KJ Nath, Chairman, Arsenic Task Force, Government of West Bengal, and Chairman, Science and Technology, SISSO, said that Dr Pathak is one who is not only endowed with a pragmatic vision, but takes all his ideas to the level of implementation. The Sulabh think-tank has not only provided the latest technology, but he has also equally ensured capacity skill development in a huge way. Prof Nath cited the successful examples of Madhusudankati, Hingleganj and Murshidabad besides some other places where the water treatment plants are being run by the rural people and have brought the much sought-after relief to scores of arsenic-affected villages.
“It’s kind of a revolution; we’ve designed plants, but we’ve forgotten about the resources that are available in the villages. Secondly, we have never given any importance to ponds. Dr Pathak has affected a sort of miracle in the sanitation front and in the programme of arsenic elimination,” Prof Nath claimed.
It has been felt that along with sanitation, safe water should also be provided to the community so that the gain to the public health becomes comprehensive. It has been established in many studies that for a comprehensive and lasting impact on community health, it is essential to take an integrated approach on sanitation and safe water.
A large number of villages, he said, are still exposed to the threat of arsenic and it would be wrong to say that the state government is doing little to mitigate the situation. But unless and until there is large scale people’s participation in this programme and captive capacity of developing pure and safe drinking water is put in place, efforts will be piecemeal and may not serve the desired result, he averred.
The West Bengal government is due to roll out a master plan under which all the villages have been envisioned to receive safe piped drinking water.
Time to raise awareness about arsenic threat: Subrata Mukherjee, PHE minister
While delivering his address, Subrata Mukherjee, minister for public health & engineering, Government of West Bengal, pointed out that in West Bengal, more than 83 blocks have been infected with arsenic and the spread has been alarming. “According to the latest research, fruits, crops, vegetables and even the breast milk of mothers living in the afflicted zones have been found to contain arsenic contamination which is really dangerous.”
Now, apart from the districts, the threat of arsenic menace has been looming large even in the vicinity of the city of Kolkata itself. And it is as close as Jadavpur in south Kolkata. “I personally deputed officials to conduct a test at a specific area in Jadavpur where the water has been found to contain quite a high level of arsenic,” the minister claimed.
At the same time, he regretted: “Unfortunately, we’re still not serious about the gravity of the situation and there’s hardly any effective social awareness campaign to communicate the right message to the affected people and those who are yet to be affected, but tantalisingly close to it.”
The PHE minister referred to a wonderful example of how the importance of water has often been ridiculously scaled down in advertisements. “In order to highlight the very cheap price of an item or commodity, we often tend to say or advertisements claim – Jaler dor (meaning it is as cheap as water) – thereby diluting the value and importance of water.”
He further said, “Some of the advanced countries claim to have improved on the version of a nuclear bomb or some even proclaim of sending satellites to Mars. But there’s still a doubt about how successful these countries are in enhancing the qualitative standard of water”. According to him, proper valuation of water and ensuring availability and delivery of safe drinking water is still a far cry in many countries. Expressing his concern over this, the minister felt that there is hardly “any time left to waste over needless ponderings. It’s time we have to take a vow to raise awareness about the threat of arsenic if we are to save humanity from getting afflicted with this menace. Only then, the will to live will be back with a bang.”
Let Sulabh’s initiative fan out to remote areas: Gouri S Ghosh, former director of WSSCC, Geneva
Dwelling on the topic, Sovandeb Chatterjee, Minister for Power and Non-Conventional Energy Sources, Government of West Bengal, lauded the efforts of Sulabh and Dr Pathak for their mission to provide safe drinking water to hundreds and thousands of villages across the country. According to him, it is the duty of the government to ensure this; but no government can do it alone. He particularly mentioned the throw-away price of the bottles being distributed by Sulabh.
“I doubt whether any other organisation or government can provide water at such an affordable price,” he said.
Gouri Shankar Ghosh, who had a prolonged stint with UNICEF and was the former executive director of WSSCC, Geneva, showered praise on the initiative of Sulabh to tap the pond water as one of its sources. He was referring to the experience at Madhusudankati in West Midnapore district where a massive pond on almost a five bigha stretch has been converted as the major source of water for the latest water treatment plant developed, funded and being run by Sulabh.
“This is a unique initiative and both the state and central governments must work together to help Sulabh fan out its reach further into the remote areas of the country to provide relief to the villagers,” felt Ghosh who stressed on the need for rainwater harvesting as well.
The situation in Bihar
According to Dr AK Ghosh, HoD (Research) of Mahavir Cancer Hospital, Government of Bihar, footprint of arsenic which, at one point of time, was mainly present in the eastern part of the country, has made its presence felt in Punjab and some of the states in the south and been progressing rapidly. Referring to the situation in Bihar where out of 38 districts, 18 have been struck with this deadly menace, Dr Ghosh regretted that most of the mitigation strategies have so far failed because of lack of proper human intervention.
Detailing the gravity of the situation, Dr Ghosh said that incidence of gall bladder cancer from arsenic has been rising sharply in Bihar and a large number of patients getting admitted to Mahavir Cancer Hospital in Patna have shown symptoms of arsenicosis and a majority of them are females. One of the worst affected districts in Bihar is Buxar where arsenic contamination has been found to be as high as 1906 microgram per litre, several notches higher than the permissible limit. Buxur is followed by Bhagalpur and Patna; it has been noticed that the southern side of the Ganga basin has been the worst hit by arsenic and the same has been spreading fast.
Dr S P Sinha Roy, chairman of Centre for Ground Water Studies, sounded a note of caution against harvesting pond water all the time, especially during the dry season as the in-take of sand poses a threat during that period. And secondly, areas where a high degree of iron concentration is visible, are found to be prone to arsenic contamination.
Among others Dr Chandreyee Ghosh, Hijli Inspiration, Dr D N Guha Mazumdar, Director, DNGM Research Foundation, Abha Kumar, Senior Vice President, SISSO, Dr Tarit Roy Chowdhury, Director, School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, spoke at the seminar.
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