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How 46 million Indians are being slowly poisoned

May 13, 2015 11:00 IST

Water from as many as 78,508 rural habitations is contaminated by arsenic, fluoride, iron or nitrate, finds out Chaitanya Mallapur/

Image: A woman fills a pitcher with drinking water from a hole made in the dried-up Banas river bed near Sukhpur village, north of Ahmedabad. Villagers walk two and a half kilometres to draw drinking water from them, and they say it takes 30-40 minutes to fill a five-litre jar. Photograph: ReutersAround 46 million people in India - or the size of the population of Spain - are exposed everyday to contaminated water, which could lead to serious health issues such as crippling skeletal damage, kidney degeneration, cirrhosis of the liver and cardiac arrest.

Water from as many as 78,508 rural habitations is contaminated by arsenic, fluoride, iron or nitrate. Pesticides and fertilisers also contaminate potable water sources, according to data released by the ministry of drinking water and sanitation.

Arsenic poisons the water in 1,991 of these habitations, home to nearly 2.9 million people, and fluoride poisons another 14,132 habitations.

Only 35 per cent of Indians in rural areas have access to potable water within their homes, while people living in 22 per cent of rural households have to travel more than half a kilometre in search of potable water, according to the 2011 census.

The United Nations observed World Water Day on March 22, 2015, and this year’s theme was Water and Sustainable Development.

Globally, an estimated 1.8 billion people are drinking contaminated water.

The per capita availability of water in India was 1,816 cubic metres, as per the 2001 census, which has declined to 1,545 cubic metres as per the 2011 Census.

While drinking water is a state subject, the central government has been assisting state governments through the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP). A primary focus of the programme is tackling arsenic and fluoride contamination of drinking water.

Let us look at the rural habitations targeted and provided with potable water supply in the country.

State/UTs 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15*
Target Coverage Target Coverage Target Coverage Target Coverage
Uttar Pradesh 23300 23134 24000 23727 24612 22666 6429 6623
Odisha 8642 6782 12209 19484 11812 18447 19538 14020
Karnataka 9695 8757 10403 13284 15475 17522 10381 7918
Madhya Pradesh 16744 15644 17074 17483 13120 13858 12446 9102
Bihar 16600 11243 15015 10960 14100 12787 13354 8696
India 164586 138367 158795 155706 144030 153428 137043 87722

Source: Lok Sabha, *Figures as on March 2, 2015

Image: Two boys fill a container with drinking water from a leaking pipe over polluted water in Noida. Photograph: Reuters.

Over the last four years, the government, under NRDWP, hoped to provide 604,454 habitations with potable water: It fell short of its target by 11 per cent.

In 2013-14, the government exceeded its target of 144,030 by reaching 153,428 habitations.

For the current year (2014-15), NRDWP has set a target of 137,043 habitations, of which 64 per cent i.e. 87,722 habitations had already been provided potable water, as on March 2, 2015.

Uttar Pradesh, with 76,150 habitations, is the state that has been most successful in providing potable water, followed by Odisha (58,733), Madhya Pradesh (56,087), Jharkhand (52,883) and Karnataka (47,481).

Rajasthan is one of the most troubled states, as far as drinking water goes, with 23,956 habitations affected by contaminated water, of which 7,873 habitations are strongly contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic substances. However, the government has only provided potable water supply to 17,978 habitations.

Let us look at habitations where potable water suffers from contamination.

Habitations Affected by Contamination
Name of State/UT Fluoride Arsenic Manganese Copper Aluminium Total habitations
Rajasthan 7670 0 107 19 77 7873
Punjab 1 1 23 1 827 2465
West Bengal 251 1124 877 38 1 2292
Assam 128 424 896 7 16 1471
Bihar 893 357 69 13 26 1358
Karnataka 1122 12 95 20 26 1275
Madhya Pradesh 1055 0 103 34 79 1271
Telangana 1174 0 4 0 0 1178
Maharashtra 307 0 646 11 34 998
Andhra Pradesh 745 0 210 1 0 956
India 14132 1991 4458 289 1427 23922

Source: Lok Sabha

Image: People gather to get water from a well in the village of Natwarghad in Gujarat. Photograph: Reuters.

A total of 23,922 rural habitations are affected by heavy metals and chemical substances in potable water. Of these, fluoride is the most chief contaminant, affecting 14,132 habitations.

Manganese affects the water of 4,458 habitations, followed by arsenic (1,991), aluminium (1,427) and lead (714).

West Bengal is the most affected, with arsenic contamination (1,124 habitations). Arsenic contamination of ground water in West Bengal is now regarded as a “geo-environmental disaster”, according to a report in the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology.

India’s north-eastern states are among the least affected states, in terms of contamination.

The government in a reply to the Parliament said that it has targeted 4,000 habitations and built community water purification plants. In addition, 20,000 habitations with contaminated water will get 8-10 litres of safe drinking water per capita per day.

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Chaitanya Mallapur/