August 07, 2020
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Brittle Bones Of Contention

The handpump boom turns a curse as fluorosis wilts the young

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Brittle Bones Of Contention

Hirapur is a typical backwater Indian village. Impoverished, illiterate, undernourished, and politically insignificant. It's also different in one other way: a majority of its children have deformed limbs. No, genetics is not the culprit this time round, it's the much-touted solution to India's drinking water problems—the handpump, courtesy which excess fluoride has seeped into the growing bones of these children—that is the root of this evil.

There is Krishna, the sarpanch's daughter, whose legs have become bow-shaped because of fluoride overload. She is 13, but looks no more than six. Nine-year-old Shatap's figure is even more grotesquely misshapen. He has knock-knees, his eyes seem to be growing out of his face and his head is larger than normal. Then there is 12-year-old Manoj whose flattened head with a protrusion at the back brings to memory the pitiable character in Elephant Man.

Hirapur is not alone in its misery. A study conducted by the Rajiv Gandhi National Mission for Drinking Water and Sanitation declared no fewer than 163 villages in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh to be fluoride-infected. The permissible level of fluoride in drinking water is 1 mg per litre of water while the study found the levels to be anywhere between 5 and 13 mg per litre of water.

Such liberal presence of fluoride in the human body is decidedly dangerous. Especially for growing bodies. The first to fall victim are the teeth and bones—teeth turn brittle and yellow; the bones weaken, grow twisted and stunted. Then there's a slow but steady attack on the intestines, brain, blood cells, skin and the urinary tract. Pregnant and lactating mothers get the nefarious message a little later. The effect on adults, though not apparent yet, cannot be ruled out, says Prof A.K. Susheela of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, who has been trying to educate the villagers about how not to get the disease.

It wasn't till early 1995 that Tapas Chakma, a doctor from the Regional Medical Research Centre in Jabalpur, identified the "mysterious disease" as fluorosis. The National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad confirmed excess fluoride presence in water samples collected from Taliapani, one of the most severely-affected villages in Madhya Pradesh. Says Chakma: "Despite my report the public health engineering department managed to get an OK report from the state pollution control board. But mercifully, their report was rejected."

Chakma's report finally shook the government out of its slumber. It ordered all affected handpumps in the district to be dismantled. In the Nainpur block alone, of which Hirapur is a part, about 256 handpumps have been sealed. What followed was the familiar depressing sequence—villagers being duped by an inefficient, corrupt, callous, shortsighted, and insensitive administration.

Last year, state Chief Minister Digvijay Singh had announced a defluoridation scheme for all the affected villages, but so far precious little has been done. The state minister for health, K.P. Naidu, promised alternative drinking water arrangement for all the affected villages. Essentially that meant the revival of old abandoned wells and the creation of new ones. New wells were dug up but in most cases the water was either unpotable or not sufficient for the entire village.

 In Hirapur an attempt was even made to pipe water to individual homes. Says a disillusioned Shail Kumar Dubey, the village priest: "They finished laying the pipelines three months ago but haven't even come back since." Apparent cause of delay: there was not enough water in the well to supply to the entire village.

Worse still, the hapless public health engineering (PHE) department, despite the hoopla, tried tapping groundwater as the main source for piped supply. "But," says an angry Raman, pointing to the aborted attempt, "the fools didn't have the sense to dig at a place far from the fluoride-affected area. Little wonder they struck fluoride-laced water and immediately abandoned the effort. What a waste of money and effort!"

In Taliapani, the water problem has become so acute that the government had to sanction Rs 10 crore for bringing water from the nearby Narmada to the village. There was no water for drinking, let alone for other domestic purposes. Says Susheela: "The government sealed the handpumps just as recklessly as it had installed them. It could have simply declared them unfit for drinking so that the villagers could use the same water for their domestic needs. But we all know this is how the government works."

The government's ineptitude has left most villages facing an acute water shortage. As for those already disabled by fluoro-sis, little is being done. Despite the brouhaha, says Raman, the government has done nothing. "No medical treatment, no prosthetics, nothing. We did take the matter to the Jabalpur high court, but the judge, obviously under pressure from the government, let off the culprits (the PHE) by awarding the seriously-affected children Rs 3,000 each as compensation. What a shame!" The children's parents have declined to accept this paltry amount. Ironically, the same government has awarded a couple of journalists Rs 5,000 each for highlighting the problems of the villagers.

This entire episode has at least exploded the myth that all surface water is polluted while groundwater is safe. A notion that led to a mindless proliferation of handpumps and tube wells at the expense of traditional water harvesting systems like wells, step wells, talabs and other innovations. Donor agencies like UNICEF have helped perpetuate such myths and promoted hand-pumps on a large scale.

Consequently, people had to pay with their limbs. Says Susheela: "Almost all the districts of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh are facing fluoride problem. And reports of affected districts in other states keep coming in. It's a major crisis we are in."

 Besides, explains Kamal Mazumdar, an official with the Drinking Water Mission: "The earth-moving projects such as dams, together with unrestrained exploitation of ground-water, has greatly upset the dynamics of aquifers in the entire country. Nobody knows what's happening inside the earth. In the Mandla case, for instance, we believe that the Bargi dam reservoir pushed the fluoride-laced layer of water into one without it." 

That's not the only problem with drinking groundwater. A retired PHE official admits that "water is rarely tested for chemical contamination before the handpumps are installed. The state just doesn't have the paraphernalia to conduct the tests. One has to approach national laboratories and institutes for such examinations. And that is a long process. So everybody prefers the shortcut." Nonetheless, Raman believes the PHE should be prosecuted for its callousness. 

The focus, meanwhile, has shifted from fluoride-related problems to the recent earthquake in Jabalpur. With the state showing little interest in the rehabilitation of Mandla's suffering lot, it won't be long before Hirapur and Taliapani disappear into the remote recesses of history, to be dug up only as references for similar tragedies in the future.

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