Fluoride-contaminated water debilitates hundreds in Indian district.

Thirty-three-year-old Amshala Swami is taken care of like a child. He can neither walk nor do things himself. He sits in one place and stares at the ceiling or at people walking on the streets. Swami is not alone in his plight. In Sivannagudem, a village just 70km from the southern Indian metropolis Hyderabad, there are hundreds like him. The reason: fluorosis, a crippling disease caused by the contamination of ground water by the chemical fluoride.

A pipeline transporting the Krishna river water runs past Sivannagudem in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh state. But the water does not cater adequately to the needs of the village. The pipe is mainly for cities further down the line, and so, people in Sivannagudem extract fluoride-contaminated ground water for their needs.

Swami says he would have died much earlier if his father had not taken care of him. His mother is mentally unstable. “I depend on my father for everything, including bath and food. I can barely move my limbs,” Swami said, emotionally.

Swami was fine at birth. When he was five, fluorosis struck him. “Now, my bones are so brittle they can easily break if someone pulls my hand or hugs me tightly. Only my father knows how to handle me.”

Swami’s father Amshala Satyanarayana, 56, a barber said, “I cry all the time seeing my son. No father should go through this.”

Satyanarayana lashes out at government officials for doing little. “There is no sincerity. We want fluoride-free water for drinking and irrigation. Instead of asking for votes, politicians should focus on the real issues of people. Generations have suffered due to fluorosis. It is time to stop this.”

Khudabakshpally, near Sivannagudem, is another affected village. Karingu Ajay, 14, is a living corpse. Fluorosis has reduced him to a bag of bones. He is propped up by pillows to reduce the pain. Veeramalla Rajitha, a 19 year old fluorosis-hit neighbour, is severely crippled and can barely crawl on the floor.

“There is no life for me. I am home all the time. Influential people, including politicians and film stars, visit me to sympathise with my condition but real help is yet to come,” says Rajitha. Her father is a lorry cleaner and her mother an agricultural labourer. Their family income is less than 3,000 rupees ($50) per month.

“My legs are getting more twisted with age. I am in terrible pain. No one should experience this,” she says.

The government has given her a wheel chair and a pension of Rs 500 ($8) per month, but that is hardly enough for her expenses. Much of the money goes for buying medicines that give her transient relief. She demands that the government increase her pension to Rs 2,000 ($30) per month and provide clean water to the village.

Though the government has constructed a tank to supply clean water from the Krishna river, it is barely sufficient for their basic needs. People say that the water supply is irregular and many continue to depend on tube wells.

Camouflaged curse

Villages all along the way to the majestic Nagarjuna Sagar dam look picture perfect, surrounded by green hills and lush cotton fields. More than 3,000 people live at Khuabkshpally and another 2,000 in Sivannagudem. But this arresting landscape completely camouflages the curse that lurks beneath.

There is at least one person from each family who suffers from either dental or skeletal fluorosis, said B Subhash, convener of the non-governmental Fluorosis Vimukthi Porata Samithi (Committee for Eradication of fluorosis).

“It’s a sheer human rights violation. Clean drinking water is a fundamental right of every citizen but it is being denied to these people. If the government had been sincere, the problem would have been solved long time ago,” says Subhash.

K Narasimhulu, a special officer in the government’s District Fluoride Monitoring Office, said the Nalgonda district is an endemic fluoride-affected area in Asia. Some 1108 villages are fluorosis-affected in the district, according to him, adding, “The government is providing safe drinking water to 1045 habitations but it is not sufficient. Water is supplied either once a week or once in 15 days.”

He claimed that the government doles out nutritious meals, pensions and special physiotherapy to the fluorosis-hit.

Dr Arjun L Khandare, a scientist at the National Institute of Nutrition research center underlined the importance of clean drinking water. “It’s a socio-economic problem and a lot of poor people are suffering. People are bedridden, crawling, their spinal cords are compressed and limbs are paralysed. It is serious,” he said.

A study by K Brindha, R Rajesh, R Murugan and L Elango from Anna University in Chennai in 2010 pointed out that high concentration of fluoride in groundwater of up to 8.8 mg/l was detected in Nalgonda. “The rocks in this area possess fluoride content higher than the world average. Weathering of rocks and leaching of fluoride bearing minerals are the major reasons which contribute to elevated concentration of fluoride in groundwater,” the study said.