In August 2011, the some villages located in Garhwa District hit the headline in the mainstream newspapers, again for the tragic reasons. For many residents of quite a few nondescript villages of the Garhwa district, the word “Fluoride” has suddenly gained currency and acquired diabolical meaning in their midst. Although, many villagers of Garhwa still remain ignorant of health hazards caused by high fluoride content in their water.
According to Jharkhand Drinking Water and Sanitation Department Report, the fluoride level in underground water in many villages across Garhwa district is 3.5 ppm (parts per million) as against a permissible level of 1 ppm as prescribed by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.).
To understand the pain of the long forgotten villagers in Jharkhand, one only needs to visit these villages and check the infrastructural facilities or more appropriately we should check the lack of basic infrastructure facilities in many of our Jharkhandi villages.
Pratapur village is a residence of about 70 families. In this village, almost each of these families has a family member either mildly crippled or severely handicapped to be bedridden. Yet, it was reported in the media that the hand-pumps at the Urdu Middle School in Pratapur are not fitted with the necessary Fluoride control equipment. Consequently, many young children have been afflicted with diseases caused by high intake of fluoride.
In Sidekhurd village, most of the villagers, including many women, often complain about joint pain, backache, besides feeling of tingling and numbness in their limbs. In this village too, hand-pumps are not fitted with Fluoride control equipment. One of the villagers, Ram told the journalists, “We did feel that there was something wrong with the water, as the utensils that stored water developed reddish stains, also a greasy scum settled on the surface of the water. Yet we had no choice but to use the same water for drinking and other purposes.”
Chinia Block in Garhwa District is worst affected, it has been reported that underground water contains highest fluoride content of 4 ppm.
In Ranicheri village, when villagers were asked by the visiting journalists about the installation of fluoride control equipment after the government survey in their village, the villagers were clueless. It was apparent that the government officials did not share their knowledge with the villagers about the threat to their health by the presence of high fluoride level in their under-ground water.
In the village Nemna, most of the residents belong to primitive Korba tribe. Many of these villagers complain of chronic back pain, yet they remain completely unaware about what really causes of their ailments. In this village too, the hand-pumps lack fluoride control filter.
This heartbreaking scenario gets repeated one village after another. In most of these villages, the villagers have discoloured teeth and they suffer from severe join pain. In the affected villages, one could easily find the ever-growing number of physically challenged children.
The District Administration has not done much either to control the fluoride menace or make people aware about the causes of their ailments. All the fluoride control machines installed in many of these village hand-pumps have either been stolen or non-operational.
Dr Ajay Kumar, national vice-president of Indian Medical Association (IMA) said, “Garhwa area has long been neglected. The government has to get serious to clear the groundwater of the contamination and make it fit for human consumption.”
Garhwa surely is neglected part of Jharkhand, with frequent droughts and long forgotten “Kanhar Irrigation Project”, which was started way back in 1976 to store water for drinking and irrigation purposes. Nearly three and half decade later this project is yet to reach its logical conclusion. As a result, the residents of this region have no option but to keep drinking same water laced with high fluoride content.
According to local leader, “A crippled person at the most gets Rs. 200 a month as handicap-allowances from the government. The disease threatens to cripple the entire generation of young people in the reason, yet, it seems that our Government is not at all bothered.”
Local MLA, S.N. Tiwari informed the Vidhan Sabha that fluorosis disease has killed several people in the past 18 months.
There are two common types of fluorosis (which is caused by excessive intake of fluorine) — skeletal fluorosis and dental fluorosis. As the names suggest, the first affects the bones due to excessive accumulation of fluoride, and the latter affects the teeth. In most cases, the knees become severely deformed, the eyesight weak; teeth become discoloured and fall at a young age. Fluorosis can also lead to cataract, prematurely ageing calcified spinal ligaments, or softened bones, and other degenerative conditions such as spinal stenosis.
When Health minister Hemlal Murmu was asked by the journalists to comment on Garhwa problem, he said the health secretary had just finished reviewing water-borne problems in the state. “A report will be released soon. I am yet to go through the findings. I cannot comment on Garhwa specifically at the moment.”
“We will die of the disease, but the government will not provide us safe water to drink,” said Vimli Devi, who was recently discharged from hospital after a prolonged treatment.
Deputy Chief Minister Hemant Soren said, “I have come across a report on fluoride and arsenic water related problems in Garhwa. There are also some areas in Pakur and Sahebganj districts where arsenic problems exist. We are taking initiatives to address the problems. Government was also planning to ensure piped drinking water supply to the affected villages.”
Is Deputy C.M. again selling a dream, only time will tell?
Meanwhile, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh asked C.M. Arjun Munda to intervene immediately. Ramesh said he had asked the secretary, ministry of drinking water and sanitation, Navin Kumar, to be in touch with his counterpart in Jharkhand regarding the issue.
In Ranchi, Arjun Munda said the government had initiated corrective measures in 2004-2005, when he was in power, but “a lack of follow-up action” and “poor awareness” has worsened people’s woes. He said, “We had taken the help of National Metallurgical Laboratory to test the groundwater and installed fluoride treatment filters in hand pumps,” Commenting on Kanhar Irrigation Project, Munda said, “The consensus from partnering states (Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh) is hard to come, the Central Government should facilitate remedial actions.”
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued notice to the Jharkhand Government, seeking a report on high fluoride levels in drinking water leading to killing and maiming people in the state’s Garhwa district. In last week of September, NHRC team also toured the affected villages and shall be submitting their report soon.
With so much media scrutiny, pressure from Union Minister and NHRC team, we expect Jharkhand Government would take necessary steps sooner rather than later.
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