Every morning Laxman Dubey and Srikant Tiwary, residents of Simri block of Buxar district, get a 20-litre jar of mineral water from one of the several ‘mineral water centres’, which have cropped up in the village. This is a routine they have been following for the past six months.
Once forced to drink arsenic-contaminated ground water, some enterprising villagers of Simri, claiming to use reverse osmosis (RO) method, have started ‘selling’ water to arsenic-affected villages along the banks of Ganga in Buxar district. More than 20 villages of Buxar district are arsenic-hit.
In less than two years, four such ‘mineral water plants’, some being run in thatched huts, have come in the village, which is among the worst affected by arsenic contamination of ground water. In turn, these units are making a fast buck in the name of ‘arsenic-free water’.
Shakti Neer, Guru Kripa and the Gangotri RO water units are doing brisk business and supplying nearly 4,000 litres of ‘pure’ water every day to 0.25 million population in adjoining villages. Every day, villagers, including those from Simri, neighbouring Balia, Mapur, Keshavpur, Sonbarsha, Dudhi Patti, Tilak Rai Ka Hatta, queue up at these plants to buy these jars of ‘pure water’.
“The idea to establish a RO plant came after seeing the plight of the people here. Those using our water now at least do not complain of gastritis and other stomach-related diseases,” claimed Anjan Kumar Roy, owner of Shakti Neer. Set up at the cost of Rs 4 lakh, the Shakti Neer plant supplies on an average 50 jars of 20 litres each to neighbouring villages at a rate of Rs 15-20 per jar.
To prove his point, Roy takes out a gadget and dips it in a sample of RO water he collects from his plant. The gadget shows a reading of 32 PPM (parts per million), while that of normal boring water is 362 PPM.
The TDS meter shows the concentration of total dissolved solid particles, said Arun Kumar, a scientist at the Mahavir Cancer Sansthan and Research Centre (MCS&RC), working on arsenic presence in water in Gangetic belt.
“The TDS has nothing to do with arsenic content,” he adds. Kumar even doubts that the water provided by these so-called RO water plant suppliers are actually arsenic-free.
“The equipment they have installed does not have the capacity to remove arsenic. To make water arsenic-free, you need to install machines that cost no less than Rs 70 lakh. What the RO water suppliers are showing is basically the hardness of water and fooling the gullible people of the district,” said Kumar.
Bihar minister for public health and engineering department (PHED), Krishnanandan Prasad Verma, also doubts that the water being supplied by these units are arsenic-free.
“Reverse osmosis does not make water arsenic-free. Water has to be treated in a specialised manner, which these small units are not capable of doing. We will look into such plants,” he said.
Indrajeet Kumar Saini, owner of Guru Kripa mineral water plant is at loss to explain whether the water he offers is arsenic free.
As per Lok Sabha data, 357 habitations are affected by arsenic in Bihar, next only to Assam (424) and West Bengal (1124 habitations). Surface water in ponds is free of arsenic but was not fit to drink in absence of a water purification plant.
The Rs 100-crore surface water supply scheme at Keshapur panchayat of Simri, initiated in 2009, has been a non-starter. It was supposed to be completed in 30 months.
“We are serious about addressing the problem. We are coming up with water treatment plants that will provide pure water. It is one of the seven resolves of governance of chief minister Nitish Kumar.Since it is a project which involves crores of rupees, it may just take some time,” the minister said.
Ground water in 18 districts of Bihar, including Buxar have severe arsenic contamination which has affected around 16 million people in rural areas and 12 million in urban areas, said A K Ghosh, head scientists at Mahavir Cancer Sansthan (MCS). Ghosh, anenvironmental scientist and former head of environment studies at A N College, found that arsenic level in ground water at Buxar was1908 ppb (parts per billion) against the WHO prescribed normal level of 10 ppb.
“What is alarming is the traces of arsenic in the blood (505.2 ppb)of human habitation in Simri that is a main cause of cancer,” said MCS&RC scientist Kumar.
The MCS study was based on 200 cancer patients from Bhojpur, Vaishali and Buxar. The scientists concluded that the probability of two types of cancer (skin and gall bladder) was due to ingestion of drinking water in which arsenic presence was more than 300 parts per billion (ppb).
According to the World Health Organisation, drinking arsenic-rich water over long periods results in various health hazards, including skin problems, skin cancer, cancer of the gall bladder, kidney and lung, gastritis besides other diseases.
The arsenic level along the banks of Ganga is dangerously high.
Last year, a state government report based on a survey of water samples collected from 19,961 tubewells in 398 villages of Buxar, found the arsenic concentration to be above 10 ppb in 310 villages and above 50 ppb in 235 villages.