Hamshala Swami can barely stand. He can only sit or lie on his back and that too only with the help of his father. Swami is suffering from gene valgum, a skeletal deformity that occurs due to high intake of fluoride. His bones have become so brittle that he can’t even lift a glass of water.
He is among the eight lakh villagers in the 850 villages of Nalgonda district who are one way or the other affected by fluorosis.
Fluorosis was first identified in the people from this region 50 years ago. Since then, villagers have had to do with stunted growth, not just economically but physically as well.
The root cause of the problem is the presence of an abnormal amount of fluoride in drinking water. Every groundwater sample in the villages has fluoride ranging from 2 mg to 28 mg per litre.
“Borewell is probably the worst possible invention for the people of these villages, says K Goverdhan Reddy, a doctor in Hyderabad.
“As the groundwater levels decline, people rely on borewells, both for irrigation and domestic purposes,” “Over a period of 50 years, people were not educated about the ill effects of consuming fluoride-contaminated water. And even if they had been educated, they were never provided an alternative source of water,” notes Reddy, who was among the first to diagnose and tell people from this region that they were suffering from fluorosis.
More than 70,000 people have been affected by gene valgum, and many are young. And almost everyone is affected by dental fluorosis that causes considerable damage to cells that manufacture enamel. Skeletal fluorosis is equally evident in persons over the age of 10.
According to a recent World Health Organisation report, the average global consumption of fluoride is close to 1.6-6.6 mg/day while in India it is around 9-12 mg/day. But in the villages around the district, the average consumption is 10-28 mg/day. A best example is the two schools in Aleru that fall in the fluoride belt. A sample of water from a hand pump, which is the only source of water, at the Government Junior College in Aleru has a fluoride incidence of 8 parts per million (PPM)/mg per litre as against the WHO limit of 0.5 -1 PPM. Another sample taken from the Aleru Gurukula School has a fluoride incidence of more than 6 PPM.
“If a person consumes four litres of water a day, that would mean he has consumed close to 32 mg of fluorine per litre. And there are places in Nalgonda like Bottlapalli village, where fluoride incidence is around 28 PPM,” says Subhash of the Fluorosis Vimukti Porata Samiti.
“The severity of fluorosis is more evident in farm workers as they consume a lot of water to protect themselves from dehydration,” says Subhash, whose organisation has been urging the government to address the issue.
“The problem is further aggravated by the fact that fluoride has entered the food chain because of the usage of borewell water for irrigation,” says a researcher at the National Institute of Nutrition.
“For most people here, boiled rice and dal with an occasional sprinkling of vegetables is the only food available. Intake of calcium rich food like dairy products can mitigate the problem to an extent, as is the case in Rajasthan that also faces the same problem. But, the absence of such food in the diet complicates the problem here,”’ he says.
More than three generations of people have been affected mostly due to the apathy on the part of the government, which never looked at any permanent alternative to solve the issue and squandered crores of rupees in foreign funds.
In the period between 1979 and 2001, the government earmarked Rs 323.16 crore to resolve the problem. Only Rs 44.34 crore was spent and that too to drill borewells with lower fluoride content, which eventually proved futile. In yet another attempt, under a special programme with financial aid from The Netherlands, Rs 317.30 crore was sanctioned and even spent on constructing de-fluoridation plants. Even this scheme turned out to be a big failure.
In fact, delivering judgement on a writ petition, the High Court unequivocally said quality water was a right of the people protected under Article 21 of the Constitution and also by a 1997 UN resolution. The latter states that people, irrespective of their socio-economic conditions, are to be provided drinking water in a quantum and quality corresponding to their basic needs. And India is a party to it.
But, the government, typically, chose to remain unresponsive to the basic needs of eight lakh people in Nalgonda of whom more than two lakh are aged below 15.
However, work has started on the Srisailam Left Bank Canal to supply safe drinking water to as many as 516 affected villages. But only 375 villages are supplied with water. And among those, only 166 villages are supplied with water on a day-to-day basis.
Notwithstanding the last-mile issues, a start has been made and the government has also started work on providing the remaining villages with safe drinking water.
The pertinent Udayasamudram LI project seeks to cover 500 more villages, of which over 300 are fluoride-affected.
“Our elders have hoped and waited for an eternity for safe drinking water. At least with the start made now, we hope we won’t have to wait that long,” says Subash.
Nearly 375 villages have been provided water by laying pipelines. The decision on the use of water has been left to the panchayat, which plans to store it and then supply to the villages.
The irony is that the panchayats are adding groundwater to the stored water thus effectively nullifying the effort. In view of this the government has taken a decision to provide all the villages with a separate tank for the safe drinking water.
But, enough funds haven’t been allocated for it. Even the schools are using ground water, which contains high amounts of fluoride, for cooking under the mid-day meal scheme. And the irony is, the only source of potable water for students is ground water. The schools blame it on adequate supply of potable water but the fact remains that, the school authorities are not really bothered about supplying safe drinking water to the children. If they really wanted they can store the safe drinking water.
Drumming up support
Tirupatamma, who is suffering from gene valgum, in Vattipalli village contested the ZPTC polls as an independent candidate.
The village has abnormal fluoride levels, close to 16 PPM. “I contested to highlight the troubles of those affected by the unsafe drinking water and though I lost technically, I won the election morally,” says the 28-year-old who contested the polls with the help of the Fluorosis Vimukti Porata Samiti.
She garnered over 1,000 votes while the winning candidate got 5,000 votes. “I shall contest again if needed. Many in our village suffer from gene valgum like Madgoani Mutyalu, who has never stood up in his life.
I could at least walk slowly till I was 10 years old,” says Tirupatamma.
But Tirupatamma is doubtful of her existence till the next elections as her mother is blind and her father is too old to work. Plus, the coin-operated telephone is not earning her more than Rs 300 a month even as the old-age pension her father gets is just about Rs 200. Moreover, government officials are harassing her to repay the amount given to her, saying that it was not a grant but a loan.