Pratappur (Garhwa): Ramapati Devi squats on a cot in her thatched hutment – her hands twisted like a malleable wire and legs deformed like oars – staring with her emotionless eyes.
Her husband Ganauri Ram, who has a big lump on his bent back, slowly walks up to her and gives her water.
Unable to speak, she gestures that she wants to lie down but a stiff backbone prevents her from spreading her legs and back straight on the cot. Despite being in severe pain himself, the generous husband places a couple of soiled, tattered pillows around her.
Ramapati is barely 50 but she looks at least 20 years older. Her bone structure is changing with each passing day as she helplessly bears the painful development pleading for death.
“She wants death and so do I. Wondering how long will we have to endure these painful changes in our bodies,” Ram, 55, said gently covering her with a soiled bed sheet before he going back to his chair.
The couple from Jharkhand’s Pratappur village in Garhwa district is suffering from skeletal fluorosis, a disease caused by excessive accumulation of fluoride in bones. Local doctors have given up hope on them and they cannot afford treatment in any other hospital.
A fluoride removal filter fitted with a tube well to save villagers from fluorosis needs repair at Pratappur village in Garhwa. (B Vijay Murty/ Hindustan Times)
Around 220 km north of Jharkhand capital Ranchi, in this village of Dalits death lurks in every family. There are dozens of people with crippled bones and damaged joints, many bedridden with multiple fractures, slowly dying in the absence of treatment.
There are a few families that have lost more than two to three members and the remaining ones too are counting their last days.
Putan Ram, 45, calls himself the most unfortunate person on earth. Five years back his was a happy family of five brothers, their wives and children. He lost four of his brothers in as many years.
His two widowed sisters’-in-law also suffer from skeletal fluorosis and surviving on medicines supplied by local doctors. “All of us are going to die sooner,” he said pointing towards his 10-year-old nephew Ranjit with stunted growth and deformed bones in both his legs.
Koshila Devi suffering from fluorosis is bedridden for last five years legs have given up strength at Pratappur village in Garhwa. (B Vijay Murty/ Hindustan Times)
Several youngsters in their early thirties with decayed teeth look double their age as if afflicted with progeria — a rare genetic condition in which symptoms resembling aspects of ageing are manifested at an early age.
“Prevention is the only solution to check fluorosis deaths,” local civil surgeon Dr T Hembrom said. “We can only give supporting medicines,” he added.
The list of sufferers is endless but the government is yet to wake up and treat it as a calamity.
In the last five years, Pratappur’s two tolas—Gatiyahi and Harijan—have lost 60 people to fluorosis. Of them, at least seven have died in the last one and half months.
A stop at the village bares the government’s tall claims of bringing the poor and downtrodden, especially the Schedule Caste, to the mainstream. In Pratappur, it has miserably failed to guarantee their right to life.
Elders of Harijan tola suffering from fluorosis have bent backs and cannot walk without stick at Pratappur village in Garhwa. (B Vijay Murty/ Hindustan Times)
The government here, it seems, is only left to count bodies. No major effort is evident to rescue and rehabilitate the remaining people.
A board by the government’s water and sanitation department standing at the entrance of Harijan Tola advices people not to consume water from tube wells affected by fluoride.
Villagers, however, complained they have nowhere to go to fetch water when the government has failed to make alternative arrangements as the entire area has a high fluoride concentration in groundwater.
An ambitious effort to provide piped drinking water to this village from a nearby river lies in limbo for the last three decades.
“A piped water supply project is underway to reach clean drinking water to the people,” Garhwa deputy commissioner Dr Neha Arora said conceding that the situation was alarming. She added land has been earmarked for setting up of a water treatment plant in the affected village.
Husband of skeletal fluorosis patient Rampatia Devi offering water at Pratappur village in Garhwa. (B Vijay Murty/ Hindustan Times)
Hindustan Times first highlighted Pratappur residents’ plight in August 2011.
After the intervention of the then Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, a five-member team from New Delhi’s Fluorosis Research and Rural Development Department (FRRDD) travelled to Pratappur. The team, led by executive director AK Susheela, suggested several measures to save people from the crippling disease and eventual deaths.
Five years hence, HT revisited the village and found that none of the suggestions made by the team have been implemented. Only one tube well in the entire village was fitted with a fluoride removal filter but that too had stopped functioning.
“I am aware of the problem persisting in Pratappur and have raised the issue in the assembly quite a few times,” BJP legislator, Dr Dipu Charan Ram, said assuring to take up the matter with the government again.