Why Indians are Drinking Arsenic Water

  At the market yesterday,  I was amused to see this little clay toy of a crow sitting on a water pitcher, holding what looks like a pebble in its mouth.   It is obviously inspired by the famous old fable of the crow and the water pitcher — which I think every country and culture has a version of.   In India this story is part of The Panchatantra Tales and in the west it is attributed to The Aesop’s Fables.  But the story is the same:

A thirsty crow, in search of water came across a pitcher in which there was a little bit of water at the bottom.  But it was too deep for him to reach.  The crow then picked up pebbles with his beak and one and by one dropped them into the pitcher.  As the pebbles filled the container, the water level rose.  And at last, he was able to quench his thirst!

Probably the moral of this story, for the cultures that have sustained it through childhood narrations, is that one  needs to be enterprising and creative to survive, particularly in the face of scarcity and hardship. Oddly enough, this is not a created fable of human values.  This is one of those things, that humans watched and learned from the animal world.  For this is exactly the kind of behavior that rooks and some other birds actually exhibit.  Research studies show, when crows are given pitchers with very low water levels, they actually figure out a way to drop pebbles etc. inside the pitcher to bring the level up so they can drink!

Yet I find this is not always so for humans!  Sometime ago, I was reviewing and editing the papers written on some ground water arsenic studies that had been carried out in West Bengal, India.   In parts of India, the arsenic poisoning of ground water is a huge problem.  It has led to all kinds of health problems — widespread kidney and liver diseases, respiratory problems,  and various kinds of  cancers. The solution of NGOs etc. that have been working with the districts is to install devices or introduce methods to rid the water of arsenic.

But from my perspective, people should not be using the ground water in the first place.   A part of the problem seems to be that much of this region is tapping into the ground water because  the government has not laid water supply pipelines here, to supply the water they harvest from rivers.  So I thought it made perfect sense when an NGO that had come up here from Southern India, wanted to find a village they could invest some money in through the setting up of a rain-water harvesting system.The only thing they wanted to be sure of was that the villagers would take collective responsibility for the cleaning and maintenance of the system.  Otherwise there could be spread of other diseases like malaria.

This is what I found incredible.  We went from village to village the entire day, talking to the villagers, explaining what they need to do.   Every village had terrible stories of death and disease.  Every other house seemed to have lost someone to arsenic poisoning.  Yet, the villagers seemed reluctant to take responsibility for maintaining the rain-water harvesting system.   They repeatedly asked — why the NGO didn’t send someone in once a month to clean it.  Or why we didn’t give them “cleaning machines” like the other NGOs had.   These arsenic cleaning methods and machines are basically ineffectual, and it makes no sense to try to extract poison from the water to use it, when you can harvest clean water from the rains!!  We wondered if it was about the technicality.  That was very simple and they’d be taught everything.  No, it turns out — it was too much time and effort.  They did not want to commit the time and effort.  In the end, the NGO went back with its funds.   The arsenic problem in West Bengal continues to go bad to worse!  I wonder what ever happened to the fable of the crow and the pitcher of water?

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