Sandhya Bhattacharya’s prospective in-laws called off the wedding when they saw her smile.
The 27-year-old, who looks about ten years older, has mottled teeth, like hundreds of others in Jharkhand’s Brahmandiha village.
The problem is the water, contaminated with naturally occurring fluoride.
Nearly half the residents have gnarled bones, stooped backs and deformed teeth. Dozens of single men and women like Sandhya have given up hopes of marriage.
“Who would give his daughter to my grandson when he grows older as he is already suffering from dental fluorosis at nine?” said 62-year-old Adhir Sarkel, whose family has been crippled by the condition.
Fluoride is associated with healthy teeth and is even added to drinking water in some countries. But when it accumulates in the body at excessive levels it begins to cake joints and stain teeth.
Panchayat head Murnima Mahto says fluoride has turned groundwater into slow poison even in neighbouring hamlets such as Gharbar, Simpather, Shivpur, Kalajhar and Kalipur. About 6,400 people are afflicted.
“After repeated complaints, the state government’s Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) painted the hand pumps of the village red and wrote on them urging people not to drink the water,” he said. “But they have not made any alternative arrangements.”
Millions of people in rural India drink from pumps that draw water from deep below ground, where it often absorbs hazardous levels of the chemical from fluoride-bearing rocks.
“Please do not discuss our problem when you cannot solve it,” said Brahmandiha resident Anil Bhattacharya. “News reports on fluoride-contaminated water have only added to our problems. We are facing social ostracism.”
The World Health Organization says water with fluoride beyond 1.5 part per million (ppm) is not fit for human consumption. Though the chemical affects people of all age groups, children up to the age of 12 are more prone to it as their body tissues are in formative stages.
Hundreds suffering from fluorosis held a demonstration before the administration’s district headquarters last year. Not much changed.
“The civil surgeon sent doctors to the village who gave us painkillers, but my illness has not gone away,” said Adhir Sarkel’s wife Anisha.
The state nodal officer for the National Programme for Prevention and Control of Fluorosis (NPPCF) said the residents haven’t qualified to receive help under the initiative.
“As per central government guidelines, only districts with at least 5% of the population suffering because of fluoride water can be included in the NPPCF,” Dr Lalit Ranjan Pathak said on the phone from Delhi. “In Dhanbad, only one area is affected.”
The PHED though has swung into action after local MLA Fulchand Mandal raised the issue in the state assembly. “Piped drinking water will be supplied to the village soon,” said an official. “Tenders have been issued for the project.”
Department junior engineer Anil Sinha said he sent samples of water for testing to the Ranchi headquarters three months ago. He is still waiting for the results.