Prafulla Behera was once the toast of his village football and kabbadi teams. Today, over a decade later, a 49-year-old wheelchair bound Behera has to be helped around by students of the local school in Karlakote village of Nuapada district, where he is a teacher. Behera owes his condition to fluorosis – an ailment caused by consumption of water contaminated with fluoride.
The pain struck in 1996, affecting his back, knees and spreading to his joints. By the time the doctors diagnosed the disease, it was too late.
“Now I neither cultivate my land nor take active part in village activities. I am financially drained,” Behera told HT.
Over the last few years, many others have fallen prey to the ailment in Nuapada — about 500 km southwest of Bhubaneswar and one of the most backward districts in the country.
The administration is yet to record the number of people affected, let alone count the dead.
The problem began after the government installed tubewells in the mid-1980s to provide safe drinking water in Nuapada.
“I was very happy when a tubewell was installed, I did not know it would be a curse,” said Durjodhan Majhi, 60, of Nuamalpada village.
With both hands and legs crippled, walking is painful for Majhi, even with two sticks that serve for crutches.
People, he said, were clueless about the disease till Behera was diagnosed in 1998. When more cases began to surface, the administration started sealing the tubewells.
“But not much effort was made by the government to survey the affected areas,” said Ajit Kumar Panda, a Nuapada-based social worker.
The first survey was conducted in 2006 by a voluntary organisation, Sahabhagi Vikash Abhiyan (SVA).
It revealed that over 22,000 people were affected in 214 villages of the district.
“Of the 4,920 tube wells tested, 907 were found to have fluoride content above 1 part per million (PPM), which is harmful to human health,” said Jagdish Pradhan of SVA. In many villages, the fluoride level was as high as 6.5 PPM.
A subsequent survey by the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation department (RWSS) yielded similar results. Of the 6,235 tube wells in the district, 1,714 were found to be contaminated.
By administration’s own admission, 386 villages are now affected by fluorosis.
Nuapada chief district medical officer Bajrangbali Jagat said: “There is no treatment for fluorosis, only prevention.”
“We have been trying to make Nuapada fluorosis-free for quite some time,” said health minister Prasanna Acharya. “Recently, I have asked for a report so precautionary measures can be planned.”
The government, he said, has begun supplying piped drinking water to all fluorosis-hit areas.