Kolkata (Calcutta) - Arsenic in the water
Apr 7, 2006
|Note: As part of the renaming movement, Calcutta is now known as Kolkata.
There are no direct flights between Ahmedabad and Kolkata, so we took two flights on Jet Airways and had a brief layover in Mumbai. Jet provides snacks before takeoff, good food, and super friendly service. Before I left on my trip, I asked an Indian friend if he had any travel tips for me. His only advice was, "Fly Jet". That man knew what he was talking about.
We arrived in Kolkata late Thursday, checked in to our hotel, and grabbed a quick bite to eat before calling it a night.
On Friday morning, we had arranged to meet with Dr. Basu at a nearby train station. We had first met Dr. Basu in Ahmedabad during the initial days of our trip. His mission is to provide safe drinking water to 1 million people who live in the area around Kolkata. In this region of the world, dangerously high levels of arsenic naturally occur in the drinking water. This isn't due to industrialization, or pollution - just an unfortunate geologic phenomenon. The elevated levels of arsenic have been proven to cause cancer. Dr. Basu has licensed the rights to a filtration device that makes water safe to drink. He now focuses his efforts on getting the filter to as many people as possible. The Kolkata city water system removes arsenic, so Dr. Basu's work focuses on the rural areas outside the city.
After meeting up with Dr. Basu, his wife, and another gentleman involved in the project, we began our two hour train ride out from the city. We were lucky to have seats and enjoyed the breeze blowing in through the "windows" on the side of the train (no glass, just bars to keep people from climbing in our out). As we made our way out of the city, the train began to get increasingly crowded. We were basically sitting knee to knee with our traveling companions who were seated facing us. As the train began to fill, people stood in the space between us - between our legs. As the temperature and crowds increased, we began to sweat profusely in our seats. The trains look like they were built in the 1950s. The seats are bare wood, and all surfaces look like they were painted yearly from 1960 - 1990. It's mind boggling to think that this is a daily way of life for many of our fellow riders.
When we arrived at our destination, a car was waiting for us. We hopped in, and within 20 minutes were at our first village. Our previous road trip was supposed to take us to meet rural innovators. After seeing this village, my definitions changed a bit. The people we had met with earlier had been small-town innovators. They lived in brick homes and had electricity and running water. The village we stopped at during this trip was rural. People lived in mud and thatch huts. There was no electricity or running water.
As our car pulled up, we could see about 150 villagers waiting for us. Women dressed in brightly colored saris sat on a tarp a 20 feet away from the table and chairs that had been set up for us. We were presented with necklaces made of flowers, each of us got a bindi on our foreheads, and a coconut filled with milk to drink. The women gave us the traditional welcome - a sort of yodeling sound made by wagging their tongues from side to side.
We sat in our seats of honor and met villagers who were affected by arsenic. Some showed skin blotching and tumors, others told of weakness and nausea. Dr Basu is in the process of raising about $10,000 USD so every family in this village can have a water filter. When I asked him about his funding sources, he said simply, "I beg. I beg companies, individuals, universities, people in India, and people elsewhere in the world to help in any way that they can." He has been doing this work for 16 years.
Two weaving looms were set up in the center of the village and we got a brief tutorial about how to make traditional saris. Skilled weavers spend two days on each brightly colored gown. For this work, they receive about $1 US.
As we prepared to leave, we asked Dr. Basu to translate for us and thanked the village for their hospitality and sharing their story with us. We were then each presented with a sari. As I have commented before, the people we have met with have been incredibly generous and giving.
The next village we visited had a community water filter set up by Dr. Basu's organization 18 months ago. With the community filter, a team of 6-8 men needs to do extensive cleaning multiple times per week. The cleaning takes 2-3 hours. Unfortunately, many villages fail to maintain their filters and Dr. Basu has therefore worked to install more individual filters. In this village, the community filter has been a success. Dr. Basu credits this to the strong influence provided by community leaders.
The two hour train ride back to Kolkata provided ample time to learn more about Dr. Basu's work. This project is fascinating to me. There is a device that costs less than $20 USD per family that makes water safe to drink and a man dedicating his life to getting it to as many people as possible. I'm drawn in and want to help.