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Poisons, pragmatic governance and deliberative democracy: The arsenic crisis in Bangladesh

Atkins, P.J.; Hassan, M.M.; Dunn, C.E.

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P.J. Atkins

M.M. Hassan

C.E. Dunn


The paper applies some of the principles of pragmatism to the environmental health crisis of arsenic pollution in the groundwater of Bangladesh. This hazard affects between 28 and 57 million people and it has been called “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history”. Such hyperbole aside, the authors consider the dysfunctional nature of central and local government in Bangladesh, which at all levels can be said to have failed water consumers. This leads to a discussion of the nature of governance generally, particularly with regard to two principles derived from the pragmatism of John Dewey: first, an orientation to political action through local, community-based experimentation; and, second, a conviction that participatory democracy draws its strength from the beliefs and attitudes distributed in social networks. The paper then assesses a number of interventions, for instance the World Bank’s large-scale Bangladesh Arsenic Mitigation Water Supply Project which has faced administrative problems since its inception in 1997 and was very slow to find its feet. NGOs with a stake in arsenic mitigation are also highlighted, particularly for their role in the so-called franchise state. It is argued that a number of conditions of inertia and resistance explain the sluggish response to the arsenic hazard. Indeterminacy about the science and technology of arsenic is one factor, and another is the distribution of power at the local level. The paper argues that future policies and projects would do well to consider deliberative democracy in guises appropriate to rural Bangladesh. This must include better information availability and opportunities for participation at the village level, for instance in civic science. The overall conclusion is that pragmatic principles are helpful in promoting community-focused mitigation measures but that accountability is essential if policies are to avoid problems of local power, patronage and clientelism.


Atkins, P., Hassan, M., & Dunn, C. (2007). Poisons, pragmatic governance and deliberative democracy: The arsenic crisis in Bangladesh. Geoforum, 38(1), 155-170.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Jan 1, 2007
Deposit Date Apr 2, 2008
Publicly Available Date Apr 2, 2008
Journal Geoforum
Print ISSN 0016-7185
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 38
Issue 1
Pages 155-170
Keywords Arsenic, Water, Environmental health, South Asia, Bangladesh, Governance, Pragmatism.


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