Matkum Ram is 38, but his receding hairline and facial and skeletal deformities make him look well over 60. His son, Ranjit Kumar is 8, is stunted but has the face of a boy 10 years older. Their neighbour, Prabha Devi, is so crippled that she hasn’t left her bed for two years.
They are residents of Pratapur, a nondescript hamlet of 70 Dalit families in Jharkhand’s Garhwa district, around 220 km northwest of capital Ranchi. Here, almost every other house has a person either crippled or bedridden.At first glance, they appear afflicted with progeria — a rare genetic condition in which symptoms resembling aspects of ageing are manifested at an early age — which actor Amitabh Bachchan brought to common consciousness in the film Paa.
But medical prescriptions show they have fluorosis, a disease caused by drinking water with high fluoride content.
With frequent droughts and the Kanhar irrigation project started in 1976 yet to see the light of day, deep borings for groundwater, laced with fluoride, are the only source of drinking water.
The fluoride level in water in several villages in the district is 3.5 ppm (parts per million) as against a permissible level of 1 ppm prescribed by the World Health Organisation. In Pratapur, the fluoride level in water taken from hand pumps is more than twice the permissible limit.
All the fluoride-control machines — villagers call them filters — installed in the village hand-pumps five years ago are either defunct or have been stolen. Small water filters distributed are now broken and being used to store grain.
At least 12 people have died of fluorosis in the last six years, claimed Mohan Ram, a community leader. “Once crippled, a person at most gets Rs 200 per month as handicap allowance,” he said, adding, “the disease threatens to cripple the entire younger generation, but the government isn’t bothered.”
Dr Ajay Kumar, national vice-president of Indian Medical Association said, “The area has long been neglected. The government has to get serious to clear the groundwater of the contamination and make it fit for human consumption.”
Local MLA Satyendra Nath Tiwari recently told the Vidhan Sabha fluorosis had killed several people over the past 18 months.
But Pravin Chandra Mishra, special secretary, health, said: “We have not received any reports on fluorosis deaths from Garhwa.”
Dr Kalanand Mishra, civil surgeon, also indicated the reports were exaggerated. “We come across fluorosis cases only when we organise camps in rural areas.”
Health minister Hemlal Murmu said the health secretary had just finished reviewing water-borne problems in the state. “A report will be released soon. I am yet to go through the findings. I cannot comment on Garhwa specifically at the moment.”
But Dr Shyam Sunder Singh, former deputy medical superintendent of Garhwa (1994 to 2003) has a different stand. “The problem is virulent. Due to lack of government intervention — proper water purification — more and more people are getting affected.”
The district only has one referral hospital, which has now been upgraded. “We will die of the disease, but the government will not provide us safe water to drink,” said Vimli Devi, 50, who was recently discharged from hospital after a prolonged treatment.