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Cooperation Between India and Bangladesh on Control of Arsenic Poisoning

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • January 28, 2013

    Bangladesh and India are substantially affected by arsenic poisoning of ground water. The magnitude of the problem is very acute in the case of Bangladesh, with nearly 85 million out of 125 plus million and 59 out of 64 districts affected by this scourge. In India, in the adjoining state of West Bengal, nine districts and more than six million people are similarly facing this problem. According to UN organs and agencies like WHO and FAO, one third of the people in the Bengal basin are affected by arsenic poisoning of ground water. Against this backdrop, there is a dire need for India and Bangladesh to work together in the field of health and medical research to devise expedient measures to contain this menace.

    Arsenic poisoning of ground water is the result of extensive use of tube wells for drawing water for drinking and irrigation purposes as well as from failure to institute adequate measures at the macro, intra- and inter-basin levels for ensuring need-based river water flows. The failure by India and Bangladesh to: a) adopt a broad regional approach for water management and b) ensure that river water flows are maintained in tandem with economic needs of the people and sustenance of their livelihoods has been the basic cause behind the underground aquifers not being properly recharged. This, in turn, has led to the increase of arsenic content in the ground water tapped through tube wells.

    Though Bangladesh is relatively more affected by the phenomenon of arsenic poisoning than India, given the number of people and expanse of territory affected as well as the scientific and technical resources available to it, India could give a lead in working out a joint programme in mission-mode. Another reason why India needs to take the lead is because arsenic poisoning was first identified in India (the first arsenicosis patient was diagnosed in West Bengal in 1983) in the early 1980s. Moreover, institutions like the School of Environmental Sciences of Jadavpur University at Kolkata are already engaged in research to work out arsenic-remediation measures that can be socially embedded and are viable and sustainable harmoniously with socio-economic policies of governments and does not detract from the efficacy of programmes to increase agricultural productivity and food security. The national governments of India and Bangladesh need to consciously attune their policies to contain this health hazard induced by over more- than- two decades of insidious poisoning of ground water.

    There is an acute need to initiate action at the global diplomatic level, on the lines of efforts made to reduce `mercury poisoning`. The recently concluded Minanmata Convention in Japan attended by more than 140 countries, which pinpointed the serious health and environmental hazards arising out of mercury-based activities, is a positive example that can be emulated by the Indian and Bangladeshi governments. A similar initiative on arsenic poisoning by the two countries is likely to draw support from many countries like Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam, Chile, Peru, Hungary, Mexico, Thailand and China. (All these countries have segments of territory and population affected by arsenic poisoning, although not on the massive scale witnessed particularly in Bangladesh and to a lesser extent in India.) Such an initiative will in all probability boost medical care and better training of health professionals as well as sensitise the people and the authorities at various tiers of governance to adopt counteracting measures in relation to the spread and control of arsenic poisoning while carrying out agro-economic activities. For this endeavour, programmatic and financial support under the aegis of United Nations Environmental Programme can also be expected as well as concomitant aid from international agencies such as World Bank, UNICEF, UNDP, BRAC, ICDDRB, etc.

    India-Bangladesh relations can develop with a positive mooring on an arsenic remediation programme. Such a programme can easily survive the vicissitudes of political change at the government level from time to time even as it draws upon the benefits of the technical and financial support provided by international agencies to improve the health and well-being of a large proportion of the people of South Asia. It is indeed surprising that neither New Delhi nor Kolkata have thought of developing joint strategies in respect of arsenic poisoning of ground water with its attendant socio-economic implications.

    Gautam Sen is ex-Additional CGDA and presently an Adviser to a north-eastern state government.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.