Fluorosis takes its toll on drought-hit Pavagada

A villager in Kariyammanapalya of drought-hit Pavagada immobilised by skeletal fluorosis. DH Photo/ashwini y s

Until a year and a half ago, K R Geethanjali, like any 35-year-old, would go about her daily chores at home, aside from eking out a living as an agricultural labourer.

Today, she’s unable to even lead a life of dignity. She needs to be constantly tended to by either her older sister or her husband -- especially when she has to relieve or cleanse herself.

Abject poverty, coupled with illiteracy has only made her debilitated condition worse. Neither does she know anything about the disease she’s afflicted by, nor does she have the wherewithal to avail treatment for the same.

Unfortunately for Geethanjali, her living circumstances have led to her morbidity. Geethanjali belongs to Kariyammanapalya, a small village in Pavagada taluk in Tumakuru district, which has been enduring a natural calamity for the 14th consecutive year. 

Today, Pavagada, with its hot and arid climate, has become synonymous with ‘drought’. 


Geethanjali (left), who is affected by skeletal fluorosis, being tended to by her husband
at Kariyammanapalya of Pavagada taluk. DH photos /Ashwini Y S

While the calamity has had dire consequences on agriculture in the entire district; the droughts in Pavagada have however had far-reaching effects -- directly impacting the human health. 

Geethanjali is among the tens of villagers in Kariyammanapalya affected by the chronic Skeletal Fluorosis (SF) disease - a condition caused due to consumption of water laden with excessive fluoride. 

The fluoride in Geethanjali’s bones have twisted, broken and deformed both her limbs, making her immobile from waist down. During daytime, she sits in one place staring into nothingness. But it’s the nights that she dreads.

“She’s in excruciating pain during the nights. We took her to a private hospital in Tumakuru last year. But we returned to the village after three days as we didn’t have any money left for the treatment. Earlier, only her left leg was affected. Now, the disease has spread to her right leg as well. I take her to the government hospital here to get injections three or four times a week. On the days we can’t afford the injections, I end up giving her a paracetamol,” says Geethanjali’s sister Puttarangamma, who is an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker. 

Geethanjali’s family has been drinking borewell water all their lives - until recently. About eight months ago, a defluoridation plant was set up in their village. The family has now taken to drinking the filtered water by paying Rs 3 for a drum full of water or Rs 2 for a pot of water.

But this too has been of little help. According to local social worker Omkar, the villagers are skeptical about drinking water from the unit. “The unit was set up a year ago. But it has not been maintained properly for the last several months. We have complained to the authorities that the water is not being filtered properly. But so far nobody has paid heed,” he said.

Dental Fluorosis

As it is the only source of drinking water, all villages rely heavily on borewell water in the taluk. Fluoride replete water is drawn from as deep as 1,000 ft or 1,200 ft. Fluoride content in water should be less than 1.5 ppm (parts per million). In Pavagada and surrounding taluks, however, the Fluoride contents in more than 5 ppm. 


Dental fluorosis among the students. DH photos / Ashwini Y S

As a result, this groundwater has left an indelible mark on all of its consumers. While SF is prevalent among adults, another disorder, Dental Fluorosis (DF) is affecting children, even as young as an eight-year-old.

Srinivasmurthy, headmaster of the Government Primary School said that most of his students had discoloured/teeth with deposits. “The discolouring starts soon after the child loses his/her milk teeth. I have seen students developing kidney stones or SF as they start growing older. Miscarriages are rampant among women. The government has recently made it mandatory that only filtered water is distributed in all schools and colleges. The students, however, end up drinking borewell water once they go back home. Most people can’t even afford to pay Rs 2 to purchase the purified water,” he added. 

Campaign for clean water

The taluk started witnessing some change for the good after a massive farmers movement. Following a writ petition by 29 farmer organisations in the year 2011, the High Court directed the state government to draw up an action plan for the supply of drinking water to the taluk, which started seeing the installation of Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants in the entire state. 

The same organisations once again moved the Court urging it to direct the government to set up a permanent drinking water project for the taluk. Following this, the Siddaramaiah government announced the launch of a Rs 2,352 crore project, which envisages to draw water from the backwaters of the Tungabhadra dam. 

While the drinking water project is yet to take off, rampant corruption has resulted in the installation of substandard defluoridation/RO plants in the taluk.

Substandard purification units

As many as 245 units were installed in Pavagada 2013. Presently 16 of them are defunct, according to official records. But locals say that a majority of the units are under lock and key, for various reasons.

The officials of zilla panchayat who have been receiving constant complaints, are now thinking of blacklisting at least two companies that had bagged the tender to install the units. “We have been repeatedly sending memos to the district administration seeking action. Now we are thinking of blacklisting two companies -- Smart India and Pan Asia. The companies are not maintaining the plants properly, as a result of which many of them have gone defunct,” said an official on condition of anonymity. 

Intervention

Though the National Programme for Prevention and Control of Fluorosis (NPPCF) was initiated by the Centre in 2008-09, it has only effectively taken off in the state over the last one year. 

For the first time, there is statistical data to substantiate the seriousness of the health hazard in the many villages in Tumakuru. 

According to the district health officials, there are as many as 695 confirmed cases of SF in the district, of which, nearly 245 of them are from Pavagada. 

Data also shows that there are 315 confirmed cases of DF in Tumakuru, of which, 136 cases were reported from Pavagada. 

Data was corroborated during the screening camps conducted in in Gubbi, C N Halli, Sira, Koratagere, Madhugiri and Pavagada, between November 2017 and February 2018

Officials claim that they have distributed wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, walking sticks and tricycles to those with SF. 

While villagers claim that SF has led to deaths in several parts of the district, medical practitioners however maintain that the disease is not fatal. Doctors have however ruled out cure for the disease. 

Officials also said that they have been conducting health awareness camps, where people are being asked to shun borewell water and consume only filtered water.

Despite this, the water tanker mafia thrives, especially in Pavagada town. Teams of water tankers can be seen doing non-stop rounds across the town, supplying water to households, institutions and commercial establishments.

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Fluorosis takes its toll on drought-hit Pavagada

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