Hand pumps marked with red carry arsenic-contaminated groundwater. The village kids know this. And yet hundreds of children and adults drink the toxic water every day in many parts of two eastern states of India – Bihar and West Bengal. “Because they have no choice,” says Sushant Singh, who noticed the bizarre practice while working on a Unicef-sponsored project in Bihar. Women also used the water for cooking at home.

Children from the arsenic affected areas continue to drink contaminated water. Credit: Sushant Singh

“This tugged at me enough to explore into an alternative for these poor and vulnerable communities. Millions of underprivileged communities are forced to consume arsenic through water and food every day”, Singh, now with the Department of Earth and Environmental Studies at New Jersey-based Montclair State University in the US, says.

Along with colleague N. Vedwan, Singh started to study how these communities perceived the obvious risk of consuming arsenic-laced water and how such perception influenced their collective behaviour. “We wanted to find out if the communities were willing to implement arsenic-mitigation initiatives in their districts and villages.”

The researchers developed indices to quantify how the communities perceived the risk that arsenic exposure posed to their health, economics, and social standing. The idea was to address the missing links between socioeconomic aspects and risk-perception in developing policy for arsenic mitigation. “The absence of such information is likely responsible for the failure of arsenic mitigation plans in rural areas, despite the obvious benefits of clean drinking water,” Singh says.

The researchers assessed these risk perceptions in arsenic-exposed communities in the mid-Gangetic plain. They found that the communities’ risk perceptions are influenced by several factors such as caste, education, agricultural-landholdings, housing status, social capital, sanitation practices, and trust in institutions. “We found that these communities appreciate the health and economic risks associated with arsenic-contaminated groundwater but not the risk of social discrimination. Communities that perceived the health and economic risks were willing to adopt arsenic-mitigation technologies,” Singh told Nature India.

With better understanding of a community’s risk perceptions, policy makers can design more effective education and awareness campaigns and implement more successful mitigation strategies, according to the researchers.

The Bhojpur district in Bihar showed one of the highest levels of adaptive capacity and so the researchers felt that the likelihood of any arsenic-mitigation technology was the highest there. The Katihar district of Bihar, with the least adaptive capacity, should be given priority in an arsenic-mitigation policies, Singh says. “Similarly, expensive arsenic-mitigation technologies will likely not work in the Vaishali, Samastipur, Khagaria, and Purnia districts,” he points out.

The perceptions will help identify areas where arsenic-mitigation is most urgently needed as also the best mitigation options based on socioeconomic factors, Singh adds.