This is a story of a land where excess fluoride has turned the ground water into a slow poison, crippling at least 10,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousand of others in constant misery.
This is the story of Nalgonda, one of the poorest and most drought-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh in southern India.
The seriousness of the problem can be measured by the fact that the groundwater has 10 to 12 parts per million (ppm) of fluoride in contrast to a maximum permitted level of just 1.5 ppm.
In the dust-filled hamlets and villages hardly 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the state capital Hyderabad there are many living examples of the havoc caused by fluoride.
People with paralysing bone diseases, stooped backs, crooked hands and legs, deformed teeth, blindness and other handicaps are a common sight.
The most shocking and sad image of this suffering is Ramaswamy.
At 18-yeard of age, when other youths are full of enthusiasm for life, Ramaswamy looks to be hardly five-years-old, with a physique completely devastated by the effects of fluoride.
He is so weak that he cannot walk and weighs barely 15 kilogrammes (less than 34 lbs). He is blind and mentally challenged.
He cannot recognise his own name and he cannot even eat by himself.
“We have done all we could have done,” says his father Ramalingaiah, himself a victim of fluoride in Anneparti village.
“Now it is up to the God and government to do something to relieve our sufferings,” he says with misty eyes.
Plans to bring clean water from the river Krishna are under way at a cost of 12 billion rupees
Experts say there is no cure for skeletal and dental fluorosis
Komati Reddy Venkat Reddy, a member of the Andhra Pradesh legislative assembly representing Nalgonda district says: “Ramaswamy is the symbol of our dreadful fate, our horrendous sufferings.
“But the government shows no seriousness towards solving the problem”.
Mr Reddy represents the opposition Congress party and succeeded in raising the profile of the problem in March when he went on a hunger strike, demanding the completion of a drinking water project.
Although his fast was forcibly broken he succeeded in stirring up public opinion.
His party also mounted pressure on the state’s Telugu Desam Government by organising a march of fluoride victims to the Governor’s House.
Ram Prakash Sisodia is head of the administration in Nalgonda. He denies the allegations of inaction.
“This problem has been there for ages. The typical underground rock formation with fluoride is the root cause of the problem. And there is no solution other than bringing water from other areas through a pipeline,” he says.
Local people have been demanding this for 30 years and say they want a supply of water from the River Krishna, which flows about 100 kilometres (60 miles) south-east of the area.
Saidamma is 36, but looks like a 60-year-old with grey hair and a thin body.
Supplies of fresh water will be too late for some
She is a widow and is suffering from severe chest pains and recurring fever. Her son is crippled and her grandson was born with defective legs.
With extensive suffering, there is growing anger, frustration and disappointment.
Sudhakar Reddy is handicapped and uses a hand-driven tricycle to move around the village.
“People keep coming to see us as if we are exhibits. They make meaningless promises that water will come. But nothing has happened so far,” he says angrily.
Venkat Reddy says this is despite a clear ruling that if the government is not able to supply safe drinking water, it should relocate the villagers.
Mr Sisodia says that day is not far off. “We will start pumping water to these villages by June 2004,” he says.
Now that a definite time limit has been given, there is some hope that the region will see drinkable water one day.
But even if that water comes, it will be too late for thousands who had already been crippled by an incurable disease.
* Nalgonda is one of the 23 districts of Andhra Pradesh state
* 600 villages and 300,000 people are affected by excess fluoride in the underground water
* 10,000 people are totally crippled