Stalked by diseases such as fluorosis, silicosis, cancer, TB etc., villagers allege a dangerous cocktail of chemicals from thermal plants in Sonbhadra and Singrauli are seeping into groundwater and soil.
Sonbhadra (Uttar Pradesh): Sonbhadra contributes over Rs 21,000 crore to Uttar Pradesh’s coffers annually from mining. It is a major stakeholder in the country’s growth story. But what does it get in return? Diseases such as fluorosis, silicosis, cancer, tuberculosis, lung disorders and miscarriages among women are common in the area.
The water here is a disastrous cocktail of fluoride, mercury, silica, cadmium, iron, nickel and aluminium. Fly ash (containing fluoride, arsenic and phosphorous) emanating from Sonbhadra’s nine coal-based thermal power plants has contaminated water, air and soil to an extremely dangerous extent in 269 villages. These villages are spread over four development blocks (Chopan, Babhani, Duddhi and Myorpur) of the state’s second largest district by area after Lakhimpur Kheri.
“The residents here are forced to drink this poisonous water. They have no other source of drinking water. Every second person in these villages is suffering from fluorosis. And the problem is not new. It has been persisting for over three decades,” Jagat Vishwakarma, a social worker, told NewsClick.
He said fly ash contaminates the water of the Rihand Dam (also known as Govind Ballabh Pant Sagar — India’s largest artificial lake at Sonbhadra’s Pipri), as it seeps into groundwater and soil.
“A majority of fluoride removal plants set up by the Jal Nigam in over 60 villages are inactive,” he alleged.
Citing a report by the Central Pollution Control Board, Vishwakarma said Sonbhadra was one among the 22 severely polluted areas in UP.
“Apart from water pollution, mercury permeates its air. Nearly 20 lakh people living in around an area of 40 kilometres are breathing in mercury. This is causing health issues, such as miscarriages in women, blood pressure and anaemia. The soil is fast turning infertile and orchards have been bearing no fruits,” he added.
The thermal power plants owned by the Uttar Pradesh government in Sonbhadra, public sector NTPC and private company Essar in the Singrauli belt, located on the border of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, on an average consume 3.26 lakh tonnes of coal to generate 21,270 megawatt of electricity every day.
Experts believe that usage of such a large amount of coal by power plants in Sonbhadra and Singrauli produces over one lakh tonne of fly ash every day — which does not get proper disposal. As a result, it gets deposited in the air, water and soil.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the fluoride level in water should not be above 1.5 ppm or mg/L (parts per million or milligram per litre). But in many villages of Sonbhadra, the level has been found above 4 ppm.
Physical Disability, Tooth Decay, Mental Illness – A Common Story
Parvati Devi, a resident of Patel Nagar in Padrachh panchayat (village council) of Chopan block, had a bent back (spine curvature disorder) since 2003, but she used to walk and do daily chores on her own. She gradually developed joint stiffness and has been bed-ridden for the past three years. Her limbs no longer move. The 36-year-old is almost a living corpse, fully dependent on others for everything.
Devi’s husband, who too suffers from fluorosis, is 70% handicapped but not restricted to the bed. The family of daily wagers, who own 10 bigha (6.19 acres) of largely less fertile land, has so far spent Rs 3 lakh on her medical treatment to no avail.
Her medical record suggests she is suffering from water-borne diseases. Belonging to Other Backward Class (OBC) of Kurmis, the family, faced with extreme poverty, does not have cover of the much-hyped Ayushman Bharat Yojna card, which gives a medical insurance of Rs 5 lakh per family.
In the neighbouring village, 30-year-old Rohan died five years ago after suffering deformities in both hands and legs. His limbs were bent from his elbows and knees like a kangaroo. He survived for 10 years in the same situation. His son, Ram Pratap, was fit and healthy. But as he turned 10, he developed a similar medical condition and died two years ago. Rohan’s wife Mankuwar met the same fate five years after her marriage. She is also bed-ridden.
Aarti, 21, was fit till she was in grade nine. She slowly experienced mental weakness and was unable to write her 10th board examination. She is now completely gripped by psychological illness.
A resident of Kusumaha in a rough and rocky pocket of Duddhi, she keeps mum, and does not even react if one wants to strike a conversation with her.
Aarti’s father, Tej Pratap, 38, has severe joint pain and stiffness in legs and hands. “When I sit, it becomes difficult for me to get up,” he said, adding that he is suffering because of fluoride in water, which they have been drinking for a long time. He said the village has tap water supply, but it is not regular. “We get it once or twice a week for two-three hours,” he complained.
Pratap’s mother, Basanti Devi, 60, has been disabled for the past 30 years. She somehow manages to stand with the help of two persons and a stick but cries in pain each time.
Pratap shares 16 bigha (9.91 acre) of land with three brothers. “The yield is extremely low because the land here is largely infertile and irrigating it is a big challenge as the area is water starved. We face so many problems. We need good medical care, but the government hospital in the district has no facility. Majority of our population either belongs to OBC or Scheduled Tribes, but we don’t have any health card. Generation after generation is getting affected with fluorosis, but the government is least bothered. Except free ration, we don’t get any relief from the government,” he said.
Vijay Kumar Sharma, 56, was physically fit and had an athletic body until a few years ago. But this resident of Padwa Kudari village is now unable to stand on his feet without the help of stick or a rope hanging from the roof beside his bed. His muscles and bones have become stiff. He is lifted with the help of two-three persons, who make him sit on a makeshift chair-like platform where he relieves himself.
Asked about tap water supply, he said all household in the village have water connection but none gets even a single drop.
“Sarkar ki taraf se keval kaaghzi manavta hai (The government’s empathy is limited to papers only),” he alleged.
Sharma’s brother is also partially paralysed. He lost sensation in his right leg in 2018. Though his right leg is working, it is swollen. He walks with the help of a stick and says he faces extreme difficulties when he tries to sit or stand.
The father of five depends on the agricultural produce they grow on 14 bigha (8.67 acre) of land he shares with five brothers.
His wife has also been handicapped since 2018. She crawls on the ground and cannot stand on her feet. “Jeevan se badhkar aur kya cheez hai, lekin sarkar ko koi matlab hi nahin hai (What is more precious than a healthy life, but the government is least bothered about our sufferings),” he alleged.
The dangerous concentration of fluoride in water is causing social problem as well.
Residents said people from other villages don’t want to marry their daughters in the fluoride affected villages because they think their daughters will have to drink contaminated water which will eventually affect their health.
“My in-laws lied about their place of residence. I was told that I am being married in a family in Shaktinagar but later it turned out to be Sonbhadra,” said Parvati Kumar, a local resident.
Ram Adhar Patel, an activist and educationist, who runs a private inter college (Dashanchal Maan Sharda Inter College) in Patel Nagar, said: “We have already lost this generation to fatal diseases. If the government wants to secure the next generation, it must work on drinking water.”
He suggested the government should make its Har Ghar Nal scheme effective to supply safe and clean drinking water to every household in all the affected villages of the district.
Primary health centres (PHCs) and the community health centres (CHCs) should be manned with specialist doctors so that those who are ill can be treated locally, he added.
Patel Nagar’s nearest PHC is located 19 km from the village, while the PHC at Chopan is 35 km away from the village. The PHC at Duddhi is 70 km south of the village. The district hospital at Robertsganj is 70 km from the hilly village.
Asked why the issue, which is impacting a majority of the population in the district, failed to become a poll plank in the recently concluded Assembly elections, he said it unfortunately never became a poll issue.
“Political parties promise the moon. Once the election is over, nothing happens,” he said.
Doctors Acknowledge Problem, But Feel Helpless
A doctor at the district hospital in Robertsganj acknowledged the problem and confirmed that excessive fluoride in water was causing deformities and paralysis on a large scale in the district.
“Fluoride is harmful in drinking water, as it gradually gets deposited in bones, resulting in skeletal and dental fluorosis. Dental fluorosis results in discolouration and teeth deformity. Those who suffer skeletal fluorosis have severe joint pain and stiffness,” he said on strict condition of anonymity.
Fluorosis also causes psychological disorders. “Therefore, we advise people not to drink ground water,” he said.
Contaminated water also impacts the growth of children, he said, and alleged “the government knows well about the disaster happening here for the past several decades, but has done little to address it”.
Sonbhadra District Magistrate (DM) TK Shibu and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Nem Singh dodged questions on what concrete steps have so far been taken by the administration to eliminate the disease.
While the DM acknowledged the seriousness of the problem and said the district administration would “successfully combat the situation”, the CMO claimed that government health infrastructure in the district was “well-equipped” to treat the disease and “all possible steps are being taken” to solve the problem.
No Problem in Disposal of Fly Ash: Officials
Power plants have dug ponds for disposal of fly ash where it is brought through pipelines in liquid form. The overflowing of ponds and leakages in the pipelines let this deadly pollutant go to the Rihand dam.
Rihand is the only source of water for the people of Sonbhadra. The fly ash is not only making the river water poisonous but also impacting groundwater quality. Despite several guidelines and fines levied by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB), disposal of the pollutant in Rihand has not stopped.
The pipelines that bring fly ash mixed with water into the ponds often develop leakages, which result in it spreading to the surrounding areas. “This has been happening for years,” alleged locals.
But the officials concerned are in denial. “There is no leakage in the pipelines. Our inspection revealed some leakages in a pipeline near Anpara and it was soon taken care of. At present, water from no ash pond is going into Rihand,” said TN Singh, regional officer of UPPCB, Sonbhadra.
When pointed out that this was contrary to several findings that have pointed out fluoride contamination in Rihand water, he said such cases were reported only from Obra, where fly ash goes into the Renu river because of leakages in the recirculation system.
“We have levied a penalty of Rs 1.36 crore against the state-run power producer. Its recirculation system is not working properly; and therefore, the fly ash partially gets disposed of in the river,” he added.
Sick, barely able to walk and even speak, the troubled local residents are now pinning hopes on the newly elected government in the state. Will it take their plight seriously and do something meaningful?