Lifesaver becomes a Killer
Fluoride Problem in Nalgonda: Lifesaver Becomes a Killer. I looked at the blank message on my mobile phone and knew she wanted me to call her back. She was illiterate but had my number saved as a star which she pressed whenever she wanted to speak to me.
The story in not new. Fluoride problem in Nalgonda district has been much talked about. But, nothing has changed. what have successive state governments done to mitigate this problem that exists for more than six decades? Most victims of Fluorosis feel that the problem has become some kind of a tourist attraction. The 19-year old Rajitha who looks more like a 3-year-old, the heartrending tales of the latest victims; the 25 bright students studying in the social welfare hostel in Aler who get to eat fluoride-ridden food and scores of others who continue to drink the fluoride water, continue to be ignored. Sadly, the issue hardly finds a mention in the new government’s agenda
I looked at the blank message on my mobile phone and knew she wanted me to call her back. She was illiterate but had my number saved as a star which she pressed whenever she wanted to speak to me. Since I had her number saved as “Rajitha fluorosis” I called back and found her voice weak and lacking the usual cheerfulness. After enquiring about my well being she confessed that she was afraid for her life as the dreadful fever that has been on for over a week showed no signs of subsiding. I assured her that she would be alright but as I ended the conversation I found myself increasingly thinking of her and several others like her in the fluoride affected villages of Nalgonda district.
Rajitha is 19 years old but she looked more like a 3-year-old kid as her mother carried her into our studio and placed her on the table in front of me. Her growth has been stunted and her legs immobilised due to the high fluoride content in the drinking water in her village Khudabakshapur. The water in this village has a fluoride content of 3.5 against the permissible limits of 0.5 to 1 PPM. Along with her were other victims, Swamy whose bones had become so brittle that they had been broken a hundred times, Sirisha, a school girl who had to discontinue her studies after her legs became bow shaped making it impossible for her to walk, Tirupatamma who had contemplated suicide many a time because of her miserable condition.... all residents of different villages affected by this dreaded disease. Water that nurtures life had become poison for all them.
It is the duty of the state to provide every citizen with adequate, clean drinking water and to prevent it from getting polluted. This is not only a fundamental directive principle in the governance of the state but also a right under article 21 of the constitution of India. Yet what have successive state governments done to mitigate this problem that exists for more than six decades? Nalgonda district has about 3,470 villages in which an estimated population of 7,75, 000 people are affected by fluorosis of which 75,000 are physically handicapped and the rest are victims of pre-natal, dental and skeletal fluorosis. Battapalli in the district has the dubious distinction of having the highest fluoride content in the world which is said to be around 28 PPM.
“Successive policies of the government, encroachment of lake beds, mining in areas around the Rachakonda hills and excessive digging of bore wells have reduced the once verdant locales to almost a desert like environment increasing the fluoride content to dangerous levels alleges Kanchukatla Subhash, founder-convenor of the non-government organisation “Fluorosis Vimukti Porata Samithi”, relentlessly fighting for those handicapped by this disease and its total elimination from the district. His argument is substantiated by facts. The forest cover in the district has come down from 35% to a mere 5% in the last few decades. About 49 lakes that were dug up and filled during the Nizam’s rule way back in 1945 including Devarakonda, Ibrahimpatnam, Cherlagudem among others have dried up and many have been encroached. Ground water levels are receding with over 5 lakh bore wells officially being sunk up to a depth of 1170 ft. The story goes that a farmer named Kalugu Anantha Reddy had sunk as many as 89 bore wells on his five acre holding earning him the title “Borla Anantha Reddy”. After all his efforts did not yield results he is said to have sold his land to a real estate dealer from Hyderabad.
Fluorosis, most victims feel has been used as some kind of a tourist attraction for the area where many politicians, visiting dignitaries, funding agencies and the media come to see the pathetic condition of a people who symbolise the ugly form of government apathy and are living corpses of its neglect. All the grandiose allocation of funds, schemes and cosmetic changes affected when the issue surfaces in the news has done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the people. In 1975 a Netherlands team that visited these villages announced a grant of 375 crore which locals say, was used to build about 45 de-fluorination plants which are now defunct. The donors themselves were taken aback at the manner in which their aid failed to do anything for the victims. The 9045 crore released after a visit by a World Bank team in 2007 had also been diverted to other programmes of which details remain unknown. An amount of 100 crore released for the establishment of a fluorosis research centre has remained unspent and no work has been taken up so far. A high court stricture that said steps should be taken to expedite measures in this regard in a PIL filed on the issue has been ignored and so is another PIL filed in 2004 questioning government inaction despite court orders. The Jalayagnam programme of the previous government was a non starter here and SLBC canal has witnessed progress at a snail’s pace with only 20 km of the 44 km tunnel being completed in the last 17 years!
A visit by former Assembly speaker Nadendla Manohar resulted in the issuing of a government order number, GO 1974, which stated that protected water supply should be provided to 959 schools in the 49 mandals affected by fluorosis and an amount of 16.75 crore was allocated in 2012. Only 50 schools have been covered and the fate of the remaining is unknown. The latest victims of fluorosis are 25 very bright students studying in the social welfare hostel in Aler whose future now is quite grim. The children in the fluoride affected schools get to eat rice and eggs that are yellow in colour because of the fluoride in the water that is used for cooking. The heart rending tales of these students somehow seem to escape the attention of those in the corridor of power with activists alleging violation of both human rights and child rights. Says Y. Laksmana Rao, General Secretary of Baalala Hakkula Prajadhwani “The Right to Education Act of 2009 specifically says all schools have to be provided with clean drinking water but that has not been implemented. Clearly this is something that does not seem possible even in the remote future. Over 8.5 lakh students under 14 years and 2.5 lakh children below five years at the Anganwadi centres continue to drink water with high fluoride content. And the future citizens of the country cannot be given safe drinking water leave alone other rights”.
Tirupatamma an orphan who is a fluoride victim stopped cooking as she was unable to get fluoride free water. She was prepared to starve to death and bemoaned the fact that even death did not come to her aid to relieve her of her suffering. Repeated stories in the print and electronic media have brought protected water supply to Tirupatamma. But this is only a one of a kind case, with a majority of the victims seeing no light at the end of the tunnel. A nation that boasts of successes in space cannot afford to give safe drinking water to its citizens on the ground. A country that talks about emerging as a world leader ignores the plight of people reduced to vegetables because of the water they consume. Political parties that talk about democratic institutions being trampled have no time to look at the violation of human rights or compassion for the plight of these poor victims of circumstances.
Several states like Rajasthan and Punjab have successfully tackled this problem through effective policies to treat water and proper nutrition to the victims according to activists Some of the measures suggested are provision of water to 1154 severely affected in the first phase through the Krishna water pipeline, restoring lakes and taking measures for increasing the green cover. “An important problem like this does not even find a mention in the governor’s speech nor was it discussed at the intellectual meet at Telangana. None of the elected representatives from Telangana cutting across party lines have done anything to address this problem. A country that can spend 30,000 crore on elections cannot think of a solution that can be found with less than a fourth of the amount. What is the use of having people’s representatives when they do not think of the people? ” questions Subhash. As the issue remains unaddressed there is a danger of several unfortunate victims like Rajitha being confined to a fate worse than death! Also unimaginable is the fate of many unborn children who may become victims. It is time for the government to get their priorities right and do something beyond mere rhetoric.