ARSENIC CONTAMINATION IN BENGAL BASIN: REINVENTING MITIGATION THROUGH PARTICIPATORY SOCIAL INNOVATIONS
Chakrabarti, Kakali Bhattacharya
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Arsenic contamination of groundwater and soil in West Bengal, India is a serious environmental health issue. Approximately 40 million people are exposed to contamination, 20 million being seriously affected. Risk mitigation faces multiple challenges, which are primarily historical, political, socio-cultural, and economic in nature. The current study investigated the factors that affect perception, understanding and mitigation of Arsenic contamination risk in West Bengal, and how culture-centered participatory communication can facilitate mitigation. 102 in-depth interviews and 2 focus-groups were conducted with villagers, local government representatives, doctors, scientists, teachers, health-workers, and college students, in 14 contamination-affected villages in West Bengal. The study found multiple barriers to risk perception and mitigation. While some of those are due to the material reality of the water infrastructure, related to issues of access, availability, quantity and quality of water; there are myriad other issues caused by social, cultural, political, economic and structural realities of the region, both of which significantly hinder and is hindered by communicative issues. Even though awareness of water quality and its health impacts is significantly low, there is no established channel of communication between risk-managers and end-user communities, nor do the government have any risk communication plans. This lack of communication, coupled with the physical qualities of the risk, and socio-structural issues in the region, causes barriers in dissemination of information, people’s understanding of the risk, and perception and exercise of personal agency in mitigation. It creates significant misunderstanding about the risk itself: patients are often discriminated for fear of contagiousness of the diseases, leading to social stigma, relationship discords and societal imbalances. Arsenic causes multiple health issues- loss of stamina for work, chronic skin lesions, cancer, ultimately leading to death. Manpower loss, especially male members’ loss, impacts both family and village economy: change in traditional livelihoods; educational opportunities are lost; girls are married off young thus affecting their overall well-being. These issues cause villages to remain in the vicious cycle of poverty. The study found need for community-based participatory research to empower communities to identify and mitigate water contamination risks. The study informs environmental and health risk communication and mitigation literature.