Fluoride Action Network

Aging in the time of Drought

Source: Indian Express | July 21st, 2002
Location: India

THE silence is the first thing to hit you in the village of Jharana Khurd, 60 km from Jaipur. Then you realise why: There are no young people in the village. Every one of the 1,200 residents, no matter if they are 50, 30 or 10, looks old, with yellow, cracked teeth and pronounced limps.

Blame it on fluorosis, triggered by the flouride pumped up from the heart of the earth through the only functional tubewell. It’s the story of all the 146 villages in Phagi tehsil, dominated by labourers and small farmers, a tragedy underlined by three-and-half years of drought. The failure of rains has caused groundwater levels to drop and flouride levels to concentrate alarmingly.

But the flouride began making its presence felt long ago. Ask Ganga and Lachma, both in their 50s, both with hunches protruding almost at right angles from their bodies.

”We have been like this for the past 10  years,” they say. Even 30-year-old Sarju and Sayar have yellowed teeth,  bleeding gums and swollen joints. Says Sayar, ”The aches and swells in the shoulders, hips, ankles make it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. If we squat on the floor, it’s painful standing up. And we all suffer from backaches.” Adds Sayar, ”We can barely lift matkas, or even work in the fields standing up.”

The children are no luckier. The pains in her hips and legs are so bad that Roshan, 10, for instance, would rather stay at home than go to school or play. ”Over the past three years, all the 25 tubewells have dried up one by one. Now we have just one handpump. The doctor says its water is poisonous, but we have no other source of water,” says small farmer Bhanwar Lal, 40.

The recurring crop failures also mean villagers have to subsist on roti-mirchi, which does not provide enough nutrients to combat the impact of the two-three matkas of yellowish fluid each villager drinks daily on an average.

At the Primary Health Centre at neighbouring Madhorajpura, resident doctor Sunil Gehlot says that he distributes enormous quantities of painkillers to patients from the 40-odd surrounding villages.

”There’s no cure for fluorosis. Villagers buy substandard painkillers – available at groceries for Rs 5 a strip – which give them kidney stones and acidity. All of which impact their energy levels and work-capacity till they are totally crippled,” says the doctor who himself displays fluorosis symptoms. ”They are like the walking dead.”

According to Jaipur Sanitary Inspector K C Sharma, who recently studied the incidence of fluorosis in Phagi schools, ”Eighty per cent children above the age of 12 suffer from
the disease. The first manifestation is in the teeth, later skeletal fluorosis sets in.”

Though Phagi and fluorosis are synonymous to the official mind – so much so that any joint pain from the region is treated as a symptom of the disease – government efforts to combat the phenomenon are minimal in Jaipur district. True, infected handpumps flaunt ominous red marks, indicating their flouride content, but to villagers with no alternative source of water, they are not an effective deterrent.

Dharam Singh, Junior Engineer, Public Health and Engineering Department (PHED), has a defence ready: ”We have concentrated on locating potable water within 20 km of infected villages. But the water table of the Mahsi river, the nearest, too, has dropped in the last two years, reducing the yield from 40 litres per capita to a paltry 9. Of the six wells we dug, just three are functional, while 17-18 handpumps are dry. Since the groundwater table has dipped from 30 feet to 70 feet, the flouride content has increased.”

Fluorosis is not a phenomenon restricted to the Jaipur belt. Rajasthan, in fact, tops the list of fluorosis-infected states of India (40 per cent of the water sources are contaminated and 22 of the 32 districts affected), but a Rs 225-crore GoI project to transport water to the worst affected region from Bisalpur dam – a scheme that may take years to materialise – is about the only pro-active step taken by the government.

UNICEF state representative Dr Satish Kumar attributes the apparent government apathy to the cost-intensive nature of the battle against the disease. That is why, he says, since 1996, UNICEF has been working on a more practical solution: removing fluoride from water. Under the plan, UNICEF distributes IIT-developed activated aluminium household filters in Dungarpur and Udaipur.

Last year, it set up a state-level Fluorosis Monitoring Committee. Says Kumar, ”We are also setting up labs to test water and have launched education campaigns, besides changing the government’s focus from ‘supply’ to ‘quality’ of water, and promoting rainwater harvesting. In another month, we will have an information centre in Jaipur.”

For all the UNICEF efforts, PHED secretary R K Meena, is convinced that it is a largely futile battle. ”Even our fluorosis treatment plants are not functioning as the maintenance cost is very high. We have introduced a special handpump which passes water through alum and lime (which can nullify the flouride content), but the cost of that, too, is very high. Unless there is public cooperation and acceptance, fluorosis cannot be controlled.”