Fluoride has become a menace for the people of Sandhibahal and Dangbahal gram panchayats under the Bijepur Assembly constituency in Bargarh district, which is going for a by-election.
Most people here are suffering from a silent killer disease called fluorosis, but the pre-election propaganda by different political parties does not reveal that they are in anyway concerned at all of this long standing problem of the people.
Take the case of Jamutbahal, Jadamunda and Banchhanagar villages of Sandhibahal panchayat, where people irrespective of their ages have been affected by the dreaded disease. The official website on the National Rural Drinking Water Projects (NRDWP) of the Union Ministry of Drinking Water Supply (MDWS) reveals that six out of ten drinking water sources of the Jamutbahal village are not fit for drinking. But due to non-availability of any other secured sources, the villagers here are forced to drink the water of these contaminated sources.
Likewise, in Banchhanagar village, one of the four hand pumps is functional and considered to be safe. Chakradihi village has six tube wells, out of which only one is functional. Problems in all other villages of the panchayat are alike. Test reports of water samples of some of the sources tested in the district headquarters water testing lab reveal that most of the sources are above the permissible level of 1.5 mg/L fluoride content.
The water sources in these panchayats have been created under three schemes – the PWS scheme, Hand pump scheme and Open well/other scheme. Hand pump scheme has the highest number of sources. In Sandhibahal panchayat, there are 39 hand pumps and two PWS sources. About Rs 1.29 crore has been spent in total in creation of water facilities in the panchayat till now.
There are 44 drinking water sources in Dangbahal GP, which includes one PWS project. An amount of Rs 29.37 lakh has been spent in creation of these sources. But the problems remain intact. “Unless the drinking water sources are changed the problems would remain,” say the villagers.
The impact of fluoride is clearly visible in people, even within children. Almost all the children have disfigured/stained teeth, which can be considered the beginning of fluorosis. Although the skeletal deformities are visible in people above 30 years, the symptoms start in their twenties. The people reveal that, it all starts from pain in waist and joints which gradually converts to stiffness and deformity.
Laxman Haripal of Banchhanagar village is only 25 yars old, but fluorosis has already deformed his arms. Bhanati Mahapatra (27) has severe pain in her waist, and she cannot bend. Digambar Rana, in his late twenties, has pain in his heels and so, has difficulty in walking. Dilip Mahapatra in early thirties has pain in knee and waist. He is unable to bend his waist due to pain.
By the time, one crosses 40 years of age, his/her deformity increases. Rama Thapa of Jamutbahal village is about 55 years old, but he is completely bent since last 10 years due to skeletal fluorosis. There are thousands of people like him in these Panchayats who have been crippled. Most people spend thousands of rupees in treatment in VIMSAR at Burla and in the District Headquarters Hospital of Balangir, but never get cured.
“Commitment is made by the politicians during election campaigns, but the assurance remains unfulfilled. The politicians are frequently visiting the villages now, conducting rallies and meetings and repeating the same thing that they have been saying for decades,” rue the villagers.
Attempts have been made to purify some water sources by attaching fluoride removal plants in the hand pumps. But, the plants in many cases are defunct due to lack of maintenance. For example, the plant attached to a hand pump in Jadamunda village worked for only 6 months. No one from the RWSS Department has come to the village in last six months to repair that.
Twenty years ago, the source of drinking water was either open well, pond, or shallow well dug in the stream bed. There was no fluorosis problem, but diarrhoea related diseases were more. Tube wells were installed and people were motivated to drink the water. No one knew that, they were drinking poison that would throw them in to the helm of an incurable disease.
People who are well-off and are capable of paying for treatment are also helpless. Ramchandra Kumhar of Jamutbahal Harijan Pada is regularly taking medicine from a medicine specialist of Nuapada DHH for last two years, but not getting well. The doctor has said that he has cervical spinal cord problem – the deformity in the spinal bone has compressed the spinal cord. The Gountia of Jadamunda village has now left hope after spending lakhs of rupees in treatment. Villagers reveal that most people die early in the age of 50 to 55 years.
“The Government is not at all concerned about the fluoride situation of the villages. When the water quality testing by the RWSS Department a few years ago revealed that the fluoride content is far more than the permissible level of 1.5 mg/L, they marked the hand pumps in red. But, when people demanded safe water, the officials cleared the marks from the hand pumps after one year,” reveal the villagers.
Villagers inform that they visit the block office regularly to demand drinking water. “We have even suggested alternative sources, but our suggestions are not accepted,” they say. People of Jamutbahal think that the water of a reservoir named “Moti Kata” located on the upper ridge of the village at a distance of half km near Budha Dongar can be used for supplying water. The reservoir has not been renovated for a long period, which has resulted in silting.
“By allotting fund from the MGNREGS or GGY, the reservoir could be renovated and water can be diverted to the village through gravitation,” say the villagers.
Likewise the people of Banchhanagar village suggest that, the proposed PWS project for Dangbahal village could be extended to Banchhanagar. The villagers do not agree that installation of filter in hand pumps or equipment like water ATM is an alternative. “We do not understand these technologies and the agency responsible to maintain these do not guide,” they say.
Most people complain that, when they approach the Government authority for deformity certificate, they are denied. Such certificate could have enabled them to get financial support of Rs 500 per month under disability pension scheme. It is one of the major demands of the people of the fluoride affected village.
The villagers have planned several strategies this time. “We cannot wait any more; we will boycott the election this time,” they warn.
Some people also suggest for a road block at Luisingha. But, many feel that, all their plans would falter in the face of the cleverness of the politicians.