Blind reality: Punjab border villages face darkness

 Noted Punjabi comedian Bhagwant Mann with blind youngsters in Chandigarh.This brings to the fore the sordid state in this sleepy village of Dona Nanka in Punjab on the India-Pakistan border. It leaves you aghast. Every other house in the village has an ailing member, some deformed and many bed-ridden. Several children and grown-ups in the village have either waning eyesight or have gone blind over the years. The reason is not clear, but the villagers claim that toxic underground water and indiscriminate use of pesticides in fields were responsible. The warning notes on walls have lost their meaning. The village has no other option to safe drinking water, and so the warnings ignored. Several dozens of people in nearby villages, especially in Laduka village, have died of hepatitis in the last two years. Their worst scare of losing eyesight only gets bigger by the day.

Shankar Singh (20) says he lost his eyesight when he was barely 10 years of age. Visakha Singh, his younger brother, told Deccan Herald that he too lost his vision as he grew up. Their father, Mohinder Singh, pulls out a bottle of water, which he collected from a village hand pump, to make his point. The dirty looking water had turned yellowish. “This is what we get to drink. We are not doctors or experts to comment on the reasons for these deformities. The least the government can do is to undertake an exhaustive scanning of these villages to arrest the problem,” he said. Villager Phool Singh said nearby villages of Teja Ruhela and Noor Shah also have many children who turned blind growing up or are suffering from eye disorders.

Seven-year-old Veena’s father Gurnam Singh of village Teja Ruhela explained the ordeal he went through when his daughter lost sight in one eye when she was just two years old. The crisis in many of these border villages has now caught the attention of some of the non-government organisations  which are pushing hard to get the government to act fast. Lok Lehar Foundation, an NGO launched by noted Punjabi comedian-turned-social activist Bhagwant Mann, has brought the issue to the centre stage to save children from deformity.

Attention needed

Mann said: “The problem is with the contaminated water. How else do you explain so many cases of deformities and vision disorders and even blindness. The issue needs to be scientifically addressed”. Citing another case, Mann said Roshan, a student of first standard, who recently secured first position in mathematical table recitation competition in Punjab, is slowly slipping into weak eyesight. “He fears he will be blind,” Mann said.

Expert from Baba Farid Centre for Special Children in Faridkot Pritpal Singh says various samples of hair, urine and blood are being tested to ascertain the cause. Chand Bhan, a nearby drain where there is steady discharge of industrial waste and toxins, is said to be one of the pollutant sources. 

But the genesis of the problem, perhaps, lies in the denial. The Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) is banking on its own sample findings which unfortunately rule out toxic substances in underground water. Their findings, however, state the presence of extremely high total dissolved solids (TDS) in groundwater, but no toxins. A senior official, who did not want to be quoted, said that there have been reports that tanneries in Kasur in Pakistan often release untreated effluent into the Sutlej, which could be the cause of these deformities in border villages. He agreed that it was important to identify the exact water source and its flow pattern to ascertain the level of toxicity.

Renowned eye surgeon, Dr Aditiya Insan, said the issue was serious, but until authentic tests are conducted from a reputable institute in the country, it is difficult to say what is causing eye disorders. “There are disorders and deformities that toxic substances can cause. But the patients have to be examined and the root cause has to be identified. The high incidents of such cases are enough reason to act,” he said.  

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