For most people in Bihar, Khaira never existed. Until fluorosis struck this village in Munger district in 1987.
Little has changed for some 5,000 inhabitants of impoverished Khaira, sited 200 km southeast of state capital Patna, since. Except, perhaps, for the number of people crippled – there’s at least one in every family – due to the intake of fluoride-contaminated water.
But on Saturday, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar vowed to make a difference by ensuring clean, piped drinking water for the villagers.
Khaira, peopled by Dalits and those belonging to extremely backward classes, was one of Kumar’s stops during the fifth leg of his Vishwas Yatra. He had conceived the yatra (march) to earn the confidence of the people.
“The sight of such sufferings has deeply saddened me,” Kumar said as he walked to the red brick Buniyaadi School with a posse of officials.
The weather – it was hot and humid – didn’t slacken Kumar’s pace as he headed to a room where some 60 fluorosis-affected villagers had gathered to meet him. Only a couple of them could manage to stand straight.
Each of them had brought a rose, as if to thank the government for forgetting them. Kumar, touched by the gesture, was close to tears when the middle-aged Maheswar Prasad related his suffering.
“Prasad was fine two months ago. He suddenly fell ill, his body bloated like a balloon, and his legs caved in. We petitioned the officials concerned seeking water purifiers, but in vain,” said fellow villager Dhirendra Kumar Sah.
Sah’s 11-year-old daughter is also a victim of fluorosis. He rued that the fluoride factor was preventing the youths of the village from getting married. “Matchmakers avoid our village like the plague,” he added.
The CM then surveyed a hand pump fitted with a filtration unit. He asked a local if the cylinder in the filtration unit was being replaced regularly. A negative reply made him grill Public Health Engineering Department Principal Secretary Ravindra Pawar, who had accompanied him.
Kumar subsequently directed officials to put up boards warning villagers not to drink contaminated water. “Ensure that it is done,” he said before heading to a solar filtration plant.
Later, the CM said his trip to Khaira was an eye-opener. “I have seen your plight. We will soon work out a plan to bring water from Kharagpur Lake through pipes. I will also seek the Centre's help,” he said, asking the people to vote for him for a second stint in power.