| Sahidul at the home for destitute boys. Picture by Naba Kumar Roy
Purbasthali, July 3: Sahidul Sheikh was begging for money and food from passersby here in Burdwan when an NGO worker first saw him nine days ago.
What the seven-year-old said when asked why he had to take to the streets left Swapan Debnath stunned.
His entire family had been killed by arsenic poisoning over the past seven months.
'The last living member of his family, his 16-year-old sister Arjina, died last April,' said Debnath, the secretary of the Burdwan-based Arsenic Pratirodh Committee.
The Class III student of Kalyanpur Primary School had seen his father Abul Kasem Sheikh, 40, mother Lal Banu Bibi, 37, brother Asadul, 19, sister Karema, 2, uncles Sirazul, 43, and Morshed, 35, and Arjina die, but remained unaffected by the poisoned water, almost miraculously.
With Sahidul, Debnath went to Kalyanpur, the village about 200 km from Calcutta from where the boy came. 'Eighteen people had died there of arsenic poisoning in two years and the district administration was totally in the dark about it,' he said.
Hearing Sahidul's story, a shocked subdivisional officer, Srikumar Chakraborty, got in touch with the Purbasthali block medical officer and asked him to serve showcause notices on the health workers responsible for keeping track of the arsenic-affected people in the area. 'It is surprising that neither the administration nor the health department had any knowledge of the deaths. We have asked the health authorities to showcause the workers concerned. We have collected a list of the dead persons,' Chakraborty said. He has visited Kalyanpur.
Purbasthali is one of the worst hit pockets of Burdwan and since 2000, 58 people have died of arsenic poisoning from drinking-water sources in the area. Kalyanpur has pushed up the figure to 76.
The revelation has made the district health authorities sit up. Chief medical officer of health Santosh Kumar Sarengi said: 'We have sought a report from the block medical officer on why we were not informed about the developments at Kalyanpur. Medical teams are being sent there and an arsenic clinic being set up.'
The administration has started distributing water filters among the 169 families at Kalyanpur who have their own tubewells. Two arsenic-proof tubewells are being sunk and two ponds being dug.
But all these mean little for Sahidul, who has been shifted to the state-run Hindu Mission Boys' Welfare Home at Satgachhia in Kalna, 25 km from his village. 'My father, mother and every one died after sores and ulcers appeared on their body. Didi (Arjina) had told me not to drink the water. She told me the skin problem was due to the water we drank from the tubewells,' he said, sitting at the home. 'After she died, Asadul kaku (who lived next-door) gave me food for a few days. But gradually, everyone forgot me. I was forced to go begging to get something to eat.'
Many still drink arsenic-poisoned water at places like Kalna, Katwa and Manteswar in the district.