DOBOKA (NAGAON): At the age of 30, Sadhoni Kalita looks like a 50-year-old woman – her legs are deformed to the extent that she has great difficulty walking, lines of stress and helplessness are etched deep into her face.
Mention marriage and the creases of sadness in her face deepen further. Sadhoni has given up all hopes of getting married because of her condition, caused by fluoride-contaminated water. “Do you think I can marry with these bad legs? Who will marry me? I have long given up that desire,” she says, as she trudges along the muddy track to her home in Tapotjuri village. She lives with her mother.
Tapotjuri is one of many villages located under the Akashi Ganga gram panchayat that have been doomed by years of fluoride contamination of underground water. Like Sadhoni, many other residents of Tapotjuri are leading a life crippled by ingestion of fluoride-contaminated water over the years.
Another resident of the village, Anowara Begum, carries her four-year-old son Shahidul Alam to school every day. Shahidul too can’t walk properly for he is almost crippled by his deformed legs. “Shahidul cried all through last night. He couldn’t sleep due to a bodyache that nags him all the time. But, he still insists that I carry him to school every day,” Anowara says.
Shahidul is not the only one in his school suffering from deformity due to fluoride poisoning. Most of the children at the one-roomed lower primary school in the village have similar deformities. “It breaks my heart to see these children coming to school with their painful deformities. But, their zest for life is heartening. They end up in tears sometimes, when the pain becomes unbearable, but go on with their schoolwork despite the pain,” says Bhabani Bora, headmistress of the school.
Fluoride contamination of water has affected the people of Akashi Ganga since the 1990s. Dikharumukh, Haldiati and Nijparakhowa are other villages under the Akashi Ganga gram panchayat affected by the fluoride menace. Though the manifestation of fluoride poisoning varies from person to person, the pain and disability caused by the disease is common to the villagers.
According to the Assam Public Health Engineering Department (APHED), fluoride contamination in the area is 2.5 mg per litre against the permissible limit of 1.5mg per litre; close to 1,200 people in the area are affected by fluoride toxicity.
Locals and NGOs say they have apprised the state government innumerable times about the problem, but to no avail. According to a survey carried out by Akashi Ganga Multipurpose Social Welfare Society, a local NGO, 925 people in the Akashi Ganga area are suffering from deformed arms and legs, bodyache and dental problems due to fluoride toxicity.
The NGO, which has staged many protests over the issue, recently apprised chief minister Tarun Gogoi about the problem. It says because of the government’s lack of urgency in responding to the crisis, an increasing number of people have been affected by fluoride toxicity over the years.
“Three generations of people here have suffered due to fluoride contamination. Though all tubewells and groundwater sources have been sealed by the APHED as the water is unfit for drinking, projects for alternate water facilities are progressing at a slow pace. From where do the people source drinking water in the meantime?” says Ranjit Devnath of the NGO.
However, the additional chief engineer of APHED, B U Laskar, said the government has provided a temporary source of water and is working on resolving the problem. “We have already put in place an alternate surface water supply facility to provide fluoride-free water to Topotjuri and other villages. Last month, the government also approved a long-term project at an estimated cost of Rs 30 crore to resolve the problem. It will take about two years to execute the project, which will cover all the affected areas under Hojai sub-division of Nagaon district,” Laskar explained.
Akbar Ali, chairman of Binnakandi anchalik panchayat, feels that the government’s responsibility doesn’t end with providing clean potable water. He said many people in advanced stages of fluoride poisoning are unable to work and are in dire financial straits. “There are households where the bread-earners have been crippled by fluoride contamination and are unable to earn a living. The government should provide economic support to these families,” says Ali.