This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by videovolunteers. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Alarming Groundwater Arsenic Levels Are Spelling A Death Sentence For 5 Million In Bihar

More from videovolunteers

Alarming groundwater arsenic levels are spelling a death sentence in Bihar. In West Champaran, where the arsenic levels are higher than the accepted levels, there is no measure for either prevention or cure.

Ramkali Devi lost three children within a year, and hers is not the only home in Harkatwa to be shadowed by the pall of death. The village, situated in Bihar’s West Champaran district, sees up to a dozen untimely deaths every year, as well as a widespread prevalence of life-threatening diseases. Not everyone can identify the diseases but the root cause is clear to all; it is the water.

Studies conducted in other parts of the district have revealed high groundwater arsenic levels. Studies have also classified 16 districts of Bihar as arsenic-affected districts, and this list includes West Champaran. However, the state government still classifies only 13 districts as arsenic-affected, and West Champaran is not one of them.

The handpumps in the Harkatwa, mostly privately installed, are spewing water contaminated with arsenic in all likelihood; the WHO (World Health Organisation) classifies arsenic as one of the top ten chemicals of public health concern. Arsenic is also classified as a carcinogenic, a substance that causes cancer; apart from cancer, it is also known to cause skin and liver ailments.

According to the Bihar government, close to 1.7 million people are affected by arsenic contamination. But research by non-governmental groups estimates that up to 5 million people in the state could be drinking water contaminated with arsenic. Meanwhile, awareness efforts on part of the government are few and far between, and in the case of Harkatwa, nil.

Interestingly, the 2013 Groundwater Information Booklet for West Champaran published by the Ministry of Water Resources, says that the groundwater quality in the district is potable as per the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS); the section on the break-up of the water’s chemical composition does not even mention arsenic.

The WHO considers anything beyond 10 parts of arsenic per billion parts of water to be unsafe. But in India, the permissible level of arsenic is five times higher than the global WHO standard.  This is attributed to the lack of alternative water resources in many areas.

Studies, however, have revealed that parts of Bihar have groundwater arsenic concentration of up to 3,880 parts per billion.

study in Khap Tola, another village in West Champaran, found that all handpumps tested had more than 10 parts of arsenic and 80 percent of them had more than 50 parts. The study also established an inverse correlation between the depth of the groundwater source of the handpump and the levels of arsenic. This correlation is common knowledge, especially among the residents of Harkatwa.

“Our handpumps are 30-40 feet deep, how much more can a poor family afford to dig?” asks Manbhawati Devi.

Another resident says that they want the government to install handpumps that are at least 100-150 feet deep. In the study in Khap Tola, the highest levels of arsenic were found in handpumps 15-35 metres deep, which roughly amounts to 50-115 feet.

Research has also suggested that open wells or dug wells are a better option than handpumps, because in an open well, the water is exposed to oxygen as a result of which, substances like arsenic and iron turn into oxides and settle at the bottom, being insoluble in water.

In Harkatwa, the community now wants the government to install new handpumps which have a deeper groundwater source and make the defunct handpumps functional as well.

But unfortunately, solutions and interventions have not been sustainable or free from problems either. A study evaluating the successes and failures of arsenic mitigation in Bihar shows that technological intervention like the installation of arsenic filters requires regular maintenance checks which had not been happening at the sites surveyed by the study. Improper installation was also identified as a major problem; for instance, if there is no proper disposal system for the sludge from the filter, it only seeps back into the groundwater.

The study also found a lack of awareness about these issues. Even in Tanju’s report, while everyone knew that the village was plagued by a water-related issue, no one had any information about what kind of issue and what kind of illnesses it was causing. The study also reported ‘social conflicts’ as a barrier to mitigation, it was found that the owners of the land where the filters were installed did not allow many other village residents to use the filter; this was linked to caste and norms of untouchability, something that has determined people’s access of water for eons.

Intervention, therefore, cannot be only technological. It will have to be driven by information and awareness and will have to factor in structures of hierarchy like caste that have long dictated people’s access to and use of resources.

Video by Community Correspondent Tanju Devi

Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team

You must be to comment.

More from videovolunteers

Similar Posts

By Ecochirp Foundation

By Meharmeet Kaur Thandi

By Ramakrishna Reddy

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below