Over 50,000 villagers in Odisha district consume fluoride-laced groundwater

Nearly two decades after the world came to know about a large population in Odisha’s Nuapadadistrict suffering from crippled backbones on account of consumption of high fluoride-laced water, the government is yet to provide a solution to the problem.

Over 50,000 villagers in the district have been affected by fluorosis.

Suffering in silence

Adults mostly suffer from skeletal fluorosis that deforms bones and causes acute pain. Most cannot straighten their backs and get exhausted very easily. Children below 15 years of age suffer from mottling of teeth or dental fluorosis.A few hundreds have even died of the disease.

In 1997, Prafulla Behera, then a 36-year-old healthy man of Karlakot village under Boden block, started experiencing pain in his neck and backbone. Doctors in Odisha could not diagnose his problem. Two years later, doctors in Visakhapatnam pointed out consumption of contaminated water as the reason behind his ailment. Mr. Behera was the first person from Nuapada to be diagnosed with fluorosis.

Government records show Nuapada has a total of 2,784 habitations. Fluoride content is found beyond the permissible level of 1.5 part per million (PPM) in 905 habitations. In Nuapada, the fluoride content in water varies from 0.14 – 7.2 PPM. Apart from causing health hazards, fluorosis adversely affects the economic productivity of the area, leading to hunger and malnutrition. There is a social impact, too. People from the non-contaminated zones do not wish to establish any marital relationship with people in the contaminated pockets.

Projects hanging fire

The steps taken by the government to mitigate the problem have had little impact. First, a pipe water supply (PWS) project was set up at Karlakot village. However, people in other villages continued to consume groundwater. Between 2010 and 2015, the government announced 21 mega PWS projects at a total cost of Rs. 273.87. The projects are yet to take off. In 2015, the National Bank of Agriculture Rural Development (NABARD) sanctioned Rs. 543.63 crore to the government towards setting up a project that would have supplied drinking water to 1.2 lakh families in the fluoride-affected blocks of Sinapali, Boden, Khariar, Komna and Nuapada. This project, too, is hanging fire.

“The State government is duty-bound to provide uninterrupted supply of uncontaminated water to the villagers in Nuapada, one of the country’s poorest districts,” says Bhubaneswar-based BikashPati, an expert on the issue.

The government, however, claims that fluoride contamination has been addressed. “Of the 905 habitats, 350 have pipe water supply. Further, 600 fluoride removal plants have been set up in 543 villages and 34 PWS projects are being executed to cover 98 habitats,” said Bhagaban Sahu, engineer-in-chief, Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Department. PWS projects, meanwhile, have failed to address the crisis due to electricity failure.