I’m back in Delhi from a reporting trip to Gorakhpur city and the surrounding rural area in eastern Uttar Pradesh. I knew about the area’s population density, its poverty, its low literacy levels, its malnutrition levels and its health statistics – but seeing it all come together in the paediatric encephalitis ward of BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur is still an immense shock to the system.
Several failings of the Indian state are fatally colliding in eastern UP – malnourished children from poor families in an area with bad water and sanitation are left to the mercy of underfunded and compromised health services.
But there’s one thing I want to talk about in particular, and that is drinking water, because I feel that it is symptomatic of something terrible that we have done these last few years – not setting our sights high enough.
The frustrating thing about talking about water in eastern UP is that we have been essentially having the same conversation for 35 years, during which 50,000 children have died of this one preventable disease, in this one area.
We now know about the region’s topography that keeps the water table unusually high, we know that as a result contamination of groundwater is easy, and we know that cheap handpumps that people can afford to put down in front of their houses are shallow, and hence dangerous.
We know all of this. Yet for too long we have tied ourselves down to groundwater, because piped water is ‘too ambitious’.