Sickness stalks India village with toxic water

Published November 11, 2014
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, an Indian villager pushes his bicycle on a bridge over the polluted Sutlej river in the village of Dona Nanka on the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab. - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, an Indian villager pushes his bicycle on a bridge over the polluted Sutlej river in the village of Dona Nanka on the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab. - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, disabled Indian school student Gurcharan Singh is pushed on her wheelchair towards school  in the village of Teja Ruhela, close to the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab. -AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, disabled Indian school student Gurcharan Singh is pushed on her wheelchair towards school in the village of Teja Ruhela, close to the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab. -AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, Indian comedian and the Member of Parliament Bhagwant Mann (L) speaks with residents Shankar Singh (2L) and his brother Visakha Singh (2R) who have lost their eyesight, as their father Mohinder Singh (R) looks on in the village of Teja Ruhela on the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab. - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, Indian comedian and the Member of Parliament Bhagwant Mann (L) speaks with residents Shankar Singh (2L) and his brother Visakha Singh (2R) who have lost their eyesight, as their father Mohinder Singh (R) looks on in the village of Teja Ruhela on the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab. - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, disabled Indian children fifteen year old Poonam (L)and her sister Renu sit at their home in the village of Teja Ruhela, close to the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab.  - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, disabled Indian children fifteen year old Poonam (L)and her sister Renu sit at their home in the village of Teja Ruhela, close to the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab. - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, A special needs child receives assistance with exercise at the Baba Farid Centre for Special Children in Faridkot in the northern state of Punjab. - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, A special needs child receives assistance with exercise at the Baba Farid Centre for Special Children in Faridkot in the northern state of Punjab. - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, nine year old disabled Indian child Manju (2L) is carried by her father Boota Singh (C) and mother Mindu Bai (L) in the village of Teja Ruhela, close to the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab. - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, nine year old disabled Indian child Manju (2L) is carried by her father Boota Singh (C) and mother Mindu Bai (L) in the village of Teja Ruhela, close to the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab. - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, disabled disabled Indian school student Jasan Singh (C) is pushed on his bicycle by his friend Vikram towards school in the village of Teja Ruhela, close to the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab.  - AFP
In this photograph taken on October 30, 2014, disabled disabled Indian school student Jasan Singh (C) is pushed on his bicycle by his friend Vikram towards school in the village of Teja Ruhela, close to the Indian-Pakistan border some 17kms from Fazilka in the northern state of Punjab. - AFP

DONA NANKA: Through his bloodshot, ruined eyes, ten-year-old Roshan Singh struggles to read his favourite comic book before readying for school in this remote and desolate village along the Indian-Pakistan border.

Singh, whom doctors say will soon be blind, has always drunk ground water drawn from communal handpumps that experts say is highly toxic and responsible for maiming scores of residents young and old.

“I fear the worst all the time. My parents also worry for me a lot,” Singh told AFP, nervously tugging at his school shirt in Dona Nanka village in Punjab state.

Since coming to power in May, nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to clean up the beloved, sacred Ganges river, describing its pollution as a national shame.

But in India's northwest frontier, where another river is heavily contaminated with lead, uranium and other metals, residents have long been left to fend for themselves.

“Wheelchairs have become a way of life here. This is our destiny,” said 65-year-old farmer Maun Singh, sitting next to two of his sons, aged 25 and 18, who have gone blind.

His village and several others are clustered around a creek at the end of the Sutlej river. The Sutlej roars down from the Himalayas through India and into neighbouring Pakistan, before turning back into India again.

Experts suspect Indian factories and Pakistan tanneries pour untreated waste into the river where it eventually gathers and settles in its tranquil tail end, seeping into the ground water.

Although scientists are unsure whether India or Pakistan, or both, are to blame for the contamination, the consequences are staggering.

Blindness, deformed limbs, premature greying of hair, learning disabilities and skin diseases are common among the 1,200 residents, while wheelchairs can be seen everywhere.

“It is not just one student, I have seen so many others forced to quit school because of blindness or some other problem,” said local school principal Lovjeet Singh, adding that 108 out of 270 of his students are suffering from some disease or deformity.


'Unfit for consumption'


The stench of cow dung fills the air in Dona Nanka where small, brick houses are flanked by narrow lanes. Open drains run alongside the lanes, infested with flies and mosquitoes, where children play.

For years, impoverished farmers and their families have relied on wells, ponds, irrigation reservoirs and handpumps for their water for cooking, cleaning and drinking.

Bhajan Singh, paralysed from the waist down since he was six months old, remembers government officials posting warnings on village walls in 2010 that read “water in this village is unfit for human consumption”.

“They put up water treatment plants in some villages but we still don't have one,” said 30-year-old Singh from neighbouring Teja Rohela village.

“I hope they act fast because the poisoned water is ruining everything, “Singh said from his wheelchair. Contamination of water supplies is common in India and other developing countries where rapid industrialisation often runs rough shod over environmental concerns.

But doctor Pritpal Singh said the problems facing villagers of Punjab's Malwa region are particularly shocking. Blood samples taken in 2010 from 149 children showed high levels of heavy metals, said Singh, who has been researching and treating villagers for the last 12 years.

“We had to send the samples to Germany because labs in India are not equipped to conduct such tests,” he told AFP at his clinic in neighbouring Faridkot city.

“The results were shocking. We had expected some exposure to mercury or arsenic but 88 percent of the samples showed high levels of uranium and lead toxicity in these children. “


Hold out hope


Tests conducted on groundwater in 2012 in four districts by the state-run Bhabha Atomic Research Center showed 42 percent of the samples had concentrations of uranium above permissible limits for drinking water.

Punjab has no uranium mines but local lawmaker Bhagwant Mann accuses tanneries in Pakistan and heavy industries in Punjab of making the groundwater toxic.

“Stringent laws should be framed to stop factories from dumping their untreated waste into rivers. I see this as the only solution,” Mann said.

Some experts also blame the Green Revolution in the 1960s that saw a doubling of farm yields in Punjab, known as the bread basket of India, but also increased soil and water contamination through hiked pesticide use.

Whoever is at fault, Surjit Singh Rakhra, state minister for water supply and sanitation, said the government was working hard to halt the health problems, including partnering with the World Bank to find solutions.

“We have identified the villages where heavy metals have been found in water. We will install water treatment plants in all such villages sooner than later, 100 per cent,” Rakhra told AFP.

The promises have however come too late for Maun Singh, left with two blind sons to care for. But the impoverished farmer holds out hope that the government will eventually halt the area's growing list of disabled and diseased residents.

“My sons mean the world to me. And my world has been plunged into darkness,” he said. "But at least our new generation will get to live a better life, that's our only ray of hope. “

Opinion

What a tangled web

What a tangled web

So poorly kept is this secret about the opposition’s real hopes and no plans that even the government has figured it out.
Climate threat over South Asia
Updated 26 Oct 2021

Climate threat over South Asia

Water shortages, drought, floods or landslides and tsunamis are not constrained by national boundaries.
Losing heritage
26 Oct 2021

Losing heritage

It’s not a good idea to turn Mohatta into a college.
The long impasse
Updated 25 Oct 2021

The long impasse

Management of Pakistan-India tensions is likely to remain the main focus of sporadic backchannel efforts.

Editorial

Perfect in every way
Updated 26 Oct 2021

Perfect in every way

GLORIOUS. Gratifying. Liberating. Pakistan’s thumping victory over India in their opening fixture of the T20 World...
26 Oct 2021

Balochistan CM’s exit

ON Sunday, Jam Kamal Khan Alyani’s name was added to the long list of chief ministers of Balochistan who ...
Minister’s odd logic
26 Oct 2021

Minister’s odd logic

THE government’s contradictions and confusion appear to have no end when it comes to dealing with the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan.
25 Oct 2021

Party to a vile campaign

THE PTI government’s hostility towards the media and its intolerance for dissent is well known. The target of ...
Financial crisis
Updated 25 Oct 2021

Financial crisis

DESPITE having progressed to ‘very good step’ and being ‘close to concluding the agreement’ a few days back,...
25 Oct 2021

Morals and Pemra

TIME and again, Pemra has come under fire for issuing arbitrary instructions to TV channels on matters ranging from...