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Village wants arsenic freedom

Villagers now call her mad. Romisa Khatoon (14) was as sprightly as any girl her age till the attacks began. She is not crazy but behaves like she is when her stomach aches after she takes gulps of the arsenic-contaminated water.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2011 14:54 IST
Mou Chakraborty

Villagers now call her mad. Romisa Khatoon (14) was as sprightly as any girl her age till the attacks began. She is not crazy but behaves like she is when her stomach aches after she takes gulps of the arsenic-contaminated water.

Villagers blame the CPI(M) government and housing minister Gautam Deb in particular for Romisa Khatoons's fate.

She is not alone. Several other villagers of Lakkhan Kathi that falls under the jurisdiction of Gogtra gram panchayat of Basirhat are suffering.

"For the last 20 years, this village has no arsenic-free drinking water source. We have so long voted for Gautam Deb but he did nothing to help us. Now he has run away to Dum Dum. Before every election, he promised to provide arsenic-free drinking water to the village. We shall ask Deb and his family to drink water from our village tubewell. If he has the guts he should drink it," said Mukhtar Ali Gazi, a land labour.

The village has been identified as one of the poorest in of Bengal. Most of the people are farmers, land labourers and bidi makers. "On an average, a family earns not more than R900 per month. The tubewells are all 200 feet deep and there is no water below that layer. That is the only water source here, we have no option but to drink that water," said Gazi.

Panchayat pradhan Anup Ray said, "Even midday meals use the arsenic-contaminated water. People send their children to school because most of them cannot provide even two meals to their children."

However, there are some who try to avoid using water from tubewells and instead use water from the local ponds. "We understand that the pond water is dirty. Clothes and utensils are washed in them and the village cattle are cleaned there too. Even we go to the pond every morning to take a bath. But the BDO office told us that the pond water is not arsenic-affected. So, sometimes we even use pond water for cooking," said Shamsher Ali, a bidi labour.

"We all are waiting to die. We often suffer from stomach ailments. We have developed gangrene on our hands and legs," said Keramatollah Mondol, a septuagenarian suffering from enteric disease.

Pointing at his grandson Afsar Ali (24), who went to hospital four times this month because he was suffering from diarrhoea, Mondol said, "Look at our children. We are giving them poison everyday. They are dying. It has become a race between the young and the old, who can die first."

"If we give Rs 7 per barrel, then we can get arsenic-free drinking water from a tubewell in Bashirhat town. But we do not have money to buy food or clothes. How can we spend so much on water?" said Gazi.

Even the midday meal provided by the village primary school is made of arsenic-contaminated water. "The villagers have no other option. We have written to the state government several times but nothing fruitful has happened yet. People here know how dangerous the food can be, but they still send their children to the school because there they would get something to eat," said Ray.

The village has more than 3,000 people, out of which 1,700 are voters. Interestingly, despite such complaints, the villagers have decided not to boycott the elections on Wednesday.

"We have so long voted for CPI(M) and they have done nothing for us. Now we will vote for change and hope that the new government will provide arsenic-free drinking water and save the villagers from dying," said Mubarak Mollah, a farmer.