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Nowhere does a mother give poison to her children except here'

By Safia Sircar

People living in Andhra Pradesh's Nalgonda district are forced to drink water that contains dangerously high levels of fluoride. Many suffer its effects -- bent bodies, nervous disorders and premature ageing. But little is being done about the problem. Safia Sircar tours the district where over 600,000 people are severely affected

Eighteen-year-old Swami looks like a two-year-old. He has broken his left arm 200 times, his right arm 100 times and his legs too often to keep count. His elder sister too was born with misshapen arms and legs. She died when she was just seven.

Munugula Anjan is 45 but he looks a lot older. He stopped working a year ago. Munugula is emaciated, his legs do not support his frail frame and his eyes are sunken. Munugula's pains started two years ago and have worsened over the last year. Now, his nerves are playing up and he cannot move.

The credit for all this goes to the waters of Marrigudem mandal (40 villages make up a mandal) in Andhra Pradesh's Nalgonda district. Many of the people here have brown corroded teeth, bent bodies and bowed legs -- all symptoms of fluorosis. The groundwater in the area contains extremely high levels of fluoride. Fluoride in groundwater, above the desired level of 1-1.5 ppm (particles per million), gives rise to numerous health problems ranging from premature ageing, corroded teeth, bowed legs and bent bodies. It also affects the growing foetus.

In 1979, 1,134 villages of Nalgonda district were reported fluoride-affected; 50,000 people in 610 villages were said to be severely affected. Since then, the numbers have only increased. In 2001, 670,884 people in 643 villages were found to be severely affected.

Munugula's neighbour, 50-year-old Satya says: "Since we have been drinking water from here, our legs and nerves have started paining. The problem started 20 ago, and now it is showing up painfully. We think the problem lies with the water. People's faces are swelling. Earlier, people at 70 used to get pains, now it starts at 40. All of us in the village feel that it is because of the water that we are suffering. We buy water. How else to get it? We cannot go and live somewhere else."

In 1965, Batlapalli village in Marrigudem mandal entered the Guinness Book of Records for having the highest fluoride concentration in the world -- 16 ppm. The 100-200 families in the region migrated to another area.

There are around 500 people in Munugula's village, Thadardally. Families from four to five houses buy water at Rs 10 a pot. Munugula spent Rs 20,000 on medicines but his pains did not subside. Swami's parents labour to earn Rs 40 a day, so when hospital treatment to the tune of Rs 4 lakh was advised, it was unthinkable. Swami was taken to a village doctor and wrapped in a cloth bandage. The local physician charged him Rs 40,000-50,000.

Munugula recalls: "For the past 12 years I have worked as a bonded labourer. We had six acres of land before but now it is useless, nothing grows… I used to earn Rs 8,000 a year, now I do nothing."

Munugula's wife and mother do not work. Bhadramma, his mother, is old, frail and bent. His wife Devamma stays at home to look after their daughter. Munugula's only daughter is eight years old. The child's eyes look huge in her pale face. Wisps of hair sit untidily on her head and saliva dribbles out of her mouth as she waves her thin arms and legs. She grins widely, exposing her corroded brown teeth. The child is mentally retarded. Devamma took her to the Yellur hospital for three months. "We have no money now," she says, "I have been selling household items to make a living and eating less."

"Who will give us our right to clean and safe water?" asks Munugula. "If someone helps then we can do something to solve this problem together. If we become ill, it doesn't matter but our children should not suffer. We just ask for clean and safe water."

So what is the government doing? "Nothing," says Duccharla Satyanarayana, a former public bank officer who has been heading the Jal Sadhana Samithi (JSS) since 1990. According to him, 20 years on, 184,700 children out of a population of 670,884 will be affected, especially children below 12 years. "Nowhere does a mother give poison to her children except here," he says. "A glass of water is a like a glass of poison. We have the right to live. Yet, our basic and legitimate right under Article 21, right to life, is affected."

Interestingly, the honorary president of the JSS is not some high-profile person but an ordinary neem tree. They had initially wanted a leading advocate to fill the post but he refused. At one meeting an old lady said: "Why do we need men as presidents, they are without a firm base, let's us have a putta (snake-hill) or chettu (tree) as our honorary president. Let us have the neem tree. It is firm, and during hot summers it is the tree that gives us cool shade. And its bitter leaves tell us that the truth is bitter."

As we trudge towards the village on the lookout for the JSS `president's' cooling shade, we come by an idle water purifier plant. It's one of the many non-working systems built under the Netherlands Assisted Project (NAP). From 1975 till 1990, the state government received Rs 170 crore from the NAP to help solve the fluoride contamination problem. Each mandal has five employees who receive a salary of Rs 5,000-6,000, but instead of working on the fluorosis issue they have been assigned to different health projects. Says Satyanarayana: "Not a single rupee's work has been done. We gave it in writing to the Netherlands embassy, that the NAP has become a `neitherland' project!"

The JSS has been demanding two things over the past 12 years: safe drinking water for the people and irrigation water from the Krishna and Godavari rivers for the drought-prone agricultural lands of Telangana. In 1990, the JSS began by focussing on the Srisailam Left Bank Canal (SLBC). An executional delay in the project by the state government, has angered the people.

Experts believe that supplying water from the SLBC is the only way to tackle the fluorosis problem. But, although the project has been included in the Five Year Plans, and allocations made in the state's annual budget, doubts are still being raised about how to channelise the water. Twelve years have passed since the plan was first proposed. This inexcusable delay has increased its cost, from the original Rs 200 crore to Rs 700 crore.

The JSS has organised a number of dharnas to bring its movement to the attention of people. Bullock carts were brought in for rasta-rokos. Students boycotted classes to organise bandhs. In 1991, six lakh signatures were collected from children, women and old people. Males aged between 18-55 years were excluded, as Satyanarayana feels that men are most prone to corrupting influences. The letter was mailed to the President of India.

The JSS movement has received immense public support. The organisation spreads its message through songs and street theatre, ensuring people's awareness about their drinking and irrigation needs, the health consequences of fluorosis, the impact of drought on the environment and people, the indifference of public representatives and its main call -- the right to equitable distribution of water.

In 1997-98, members of the JSS went to Delhi. Swami's mother recalls: "We tried to meet the prime minister but were refused." Reason: The metal detector detected a safety pin holding up Swami's shorts and made a loud noise. That, for the police, constituted a security risk! Swami, his parents and other JSS activists met members of the National Human Rights Commission. Swami's mother held Swami in front of them and said: "This is Swami, a gift of our democratic set-up just because he happened to be born in the most neglected district."

InfoChange News & Features, February 2003