Deformed bodies & yellowing teeth: Fluoride contamination in water major health hazard in rural JharkhandWritten By Rahul Singh | Published on Updated: Sep 24, 2022, 15:09 IST | 1664012364959Savitri Mukherjee and her brother-in-law Aditya Mukherjee no longer have healthy bodies. They suffer from skeletal fluorosis.(Photo: Rahul Singh)
Prolonged dependence on groundwater has exposed residents of Ghadbhad village in Dhanbad to a danger that now threatens to transcend generations.
Baliapur, Jharkhand: On a hot summer afternoon, Aditya Mukherjee lies in his small, rundown room, trying to suppress his pain. When he opens the door on hearing someone outside, his appearance surprises this reporter — the 54-year-old’s body resembles a pile of skin and bones.
A fluorosis patient, Mukherjee is incapable of doing any physical work. A resident of Ghadbhad village in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district, he once ran a sweets shop with his brother, but now finds it tough to earn a livelihood. While the food grains they received from the government’s food security scheme served as a big relief to the family, his wife had to take up domestic work to earn an income.
“This is all due to the contaminated water here,” he tells 101Reporters. “My health has deteriorated over the past 10 years. I’m unable to walk for too long, and there’s a burning sensation all over my body.”
Mukherjee is not alone in his pain. His sister-in-law, Savitri, is in bed in the adjacent room, complaining of a knee ache.
“Over the past two or three years, the situation has worsened,” she says. “Neither do I feel hungry, nor can I really taste the food I eat. So I end up eating less.”
Although the Mukherjee family isn't alone in its crisis, the situation isn’t as bad for others in Ghadbhad — yet. Shasti Mukherjee, for instance, walks with difficulty and has developed an arched back.
“Two to three years ago, I was a very healthy man, but the fluoride-contaminated water harmed my body badly,” the 52-year-old sculptor shares, adding that it was around June or July 2021 that he started feeling the effects of fluoride on his body.
While the disease has affected his livelihood, Shasti gets by with help from a few colleagues. However, he doesn’t know for how long he can sustain work through such dependent means.“We had no such water issues till around two decades ago. Villagers would get water from the Damodar river and from wells. But with people increasingly relying on hand pumps, such water-related ailments rose gradually,” he explains.
Moreover, according to Sushant Sarkhel, a village youth, there was a time in Ghadbad when several people worked in the police.
“But if the body becomes weak, how can one get into the police force?” he asks, also pointing out that the fluoride contamination in their water now affected the village’s younger generations.
A visit by 101Reporters to a nearby household supports Sarkhel’s claim. Here, a young boy rushes to open the door. Inside his mouth is nothing but a bouquet of cavities and yellowing teeth. He suffers from dental fluorosis and can barely walk 50 steps steadily. He’s only 11 years old.
The perils of a non-functional water treatment plant
Built at a cost of around Rs 7.2 crore, a water treatment plant with a capacity of 11.2 million litres per day (MLD) was set up in Sheetalpur village near Ghadbhad to supply water in the area. However, residents are dissatisfied with the drinking water coverage and say the plant hasn’t done its job. Their complaints have also gone unheard, they allege.
“There's an issue with the groundwater in Ghadbhad, as a result of which we use surface water to supply drinking water to people,” says Reyaz Alam, the superintendent engineer of the Dhanbad Drinking Water and Sanitation Department. “This water is treated with alum, lime and bleaching water.”
When questioned about the issue of poor drinking water coverage, Alam redirects 101Reporters to the department’s executive engineer Bhikharam Bhagat, who says: “The Sheetalpur elevated service reservoir supplies drinking water to all eight villages in the area — Kusberia, Chaatatand, Kalipur, Asanbani, Shivpaathar, Virsinghpur, Sarisakundi and Ghadbhad.”
He adds that five towers are to be set up, of which four are complete.
“Pipelines are missing in certain villages, but this will be rectified soon,” Bhagat says, adding that the water is purified after a thorough process. “Even if the water looks dirty, it’s safe to drink.”
Residents, on the other hand, share a different story.
“The treatment plant draws water from the Damodar river and has been supplying drinking water since last year. However, the water is only treated with alum and is not purified thoroughly,” claims 54-year-old Jitendranath Sarkhel, adding that they barely get two hours of water a day.
Ghadbhad sarpanch Mukhiya Mithu Sarkhel sheds light on another seemingly related problem: “When people read about Ghadbhad in the news, they don’t want to get their daughters married to the men here, and women, too, suffer adverse effects of fluoride contamination.”
“We had complained to the public health engineering department in Dhanbad regarding the treatment plant, but nothing has happened yet,” the village chief says, adding that of the six villages under her panchayat, only three get water, which, too, is not clean, and that the relatively affluent can afford to buy bottled water. .
A compounding health hazard
Health journal Lancet has highlighted how high levels of fluoride from contaminated groundwater is putting Indians at risk of fluorosis. Additionally, Navneet Mishra of Gujarat-based INREM foundation, explains the geoscience behind the fluoride contamination: “The more dependent we are on groundwater and dig deeper into the earth seeking water, the greater is the fluoride-related risk.”
Mishra adds that fluoride removes calcium from the body, which leads to ailments such as dental and skeletal fluorosis. If pregnant women drink fluoride-contaminated water, it can pose a threat to the child, as well.“After a certain age, there's no solution to fluorosis. Even among kids in the age group of 0 to 6 years, issues related to fluoride become worse as they grow older,” he stresses.
The World Health Organisation set the safe limit of fluoride in drinking water for humans at 1.5 PPM (parts per million). However, in Ghadbhad, the level of fluoride in the drinking water is 14.9 PPM — nearly 10 times the limit — according to a research.
“In regions affected by fluoride contamination, rainwater harvesting can be a possible solution for drinking water," Mishra notes. "Groundwater can still be used for other purposes."
Furthermore, Dr Rahul, the doctor in-charge at Baliapur block’s government hospital, says nearly all 23 panchayats in Baliapur faced water-related issues, “though Ghadbhad was the worst-affected, since both the groundwater and river water here were contaminated”.
To tackle this impurity, he shares two suggestions: “A rainwater harvesting plant needs to be set up to supply drinking water. Either this can be done, or residents can be shifted to a safer place.”
Residents of Ghadbhad, however, are no stranger to relocation. Sculptor Shasti says villagers were once relocated in 1950, during the construction of the Panchet Dam.“If we are displaced again, where will we go?” he asks.
A nationwide issue
Fluoride contamination of water is a common thread that connects rural India. Eklavya Prasad, a Dhanbad resident and managing trustee of Megh Payan Abhiyan, an organisation that conducts research on the water in Bihar and Jharkhand, says the issue dates back nearly six decades.
“In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we started digging up the ground for water in India. As we drilled deeper, the water got increasingly mixed with minerals,” Prasad says, warning of the harmful effects of these minerals on the human body.
Having worked with various organisations in Ghadbhad to set up a health camp, he, too, suggests rainwater harvesting as an answer to the drinking water problem.
On the way forward, Jadavpur University professor Dr T Roychowdhury, who has done extensive research on groundwater in West Bengal and adjoining areas, says, “The government has taken several mitigation measures, including the installation of new hand pumps and wells, big-diameter and deeper aquifer tube wells, as well as fluoride removal (treatment) plants. However, these were found to be arsenic contaminated. Instead, maintenance of surface water bodies, wetlands and rainwater harvesting could be the best resort in arsenic and fluoride endemic zones.”
Edited by Sharad Akavoor
Photos by Rahul Singh
Disclaimer: 101Reporters ensures that all photographs are taken with complete consent from the subjects interviewed or their guardians.
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)