When the political parties came for campaign on the banks of river Ganga in eastern UP, they came across banners and posters of an unusual demand --- 'safe and arsenic free drinking water'.
Quick to bank on a political issue, they acceded to the demand and had it in their manifestos. But were fast to admit it would not be an easy 'promise' to keep.
"The entire underground water is laced with Arsenic. Providing a solution is a challenge and I am sure to meet this challenge," said BJP candidate from Doaba assembly segment Bharat Singh.
The enormity of the task could be gauged from a two-year long Jadavpur University survey conducted by Dr Dipankar Chatterjee. The samples from 4,780 tube-wells on the banks of river Ganga in the 100-kilometre stretch found Arsenic exceeding the prescribed limit of 10 mug/litre (million unit grams per litre) in 46.5 per cent samples. In 26.5 per cent samples, Arsenic was found to be more than 50 mug/l and in case of 10 per cent it was as high as 300 mug/l. The highest quantity of Arsenic was found to be 3192 mug/l.
In the 989 villages in the belt, Chatterjee found about 20 per cent of the population to be suffering with extreme Arsenic skin diseases like lesions.
"Arsenic neuropathy and adverse obstetric was also observed due to severe exposure," Chatterjee said, in the survey report.
Villagers in Ramgarh, one of the most adversely affected villages, claim that signs of Arsenic deposits in body are witnessed in about 98 per cent of the population. "Every family in the village has seen an Arsenic related death," said Nand Lal Pandey, whose father died of the Arsenic related disease last year.
The situation is no better in the nearby villages like Dhalan Chapra, Panchrukiya and Rajpur Akona where over 60 per cent of villagers are suffering from Arsenic related diseases. "What can we do? Our protests have fallen on deaf years," alleged Kamatak Pandey of Dhalan Chapra.
Nand Lal gives a political tinge to the issue by saying, "No one can get vote on mandir or masjid or crime here. We will vote for Arsenic free water".
Amin Chand Misra, whose young body also shows signs of lesions, say they have no option but to drink Arsenic laced water. Attempt of UP Jal Nigam to find an alternative safe drinking water in many of the villages has failed. "A bore well was dug up but the water had high quantity of Arsenic and bacteria," said Tadkeshwar Nath Tiwari, the village headman of Tiwari Tola. A UP Jal Nigam official in Ballia admitted of
the problem and said only 250 bore wells have been replaced since the problem arose and cited financial constraints for the slow progress.
If the Congress candidate from Doaba Manoj Singh is to be believed, there will be no shortage of funds. "I will get the requisite amount of money from the Central government for providing safe water," he assured.
Bharat Singh was also not far behind. "If we come to power, I will ensure that the BJP government in Lucknow provides Arsenic free water in my constituency," he promised.
For locals such promises are not new. Therefore, they have demanded in writing from the contestants the time in which Arsenic free water is provided to the thousands of villages in the belt. Not many have come forth. And, it explains the enormity and daunting task ahead.