Analysis

DIGGING THE MASS GRAVE

Bhubaneswar: Nearly ten thousand residents of Badaputti, P-Lakhimpur and Baginipetta, three villages under Chhatrapur block in Odisha’s Ganjam district, now consider themselves as mere human beings living in a cursed land where the demon of death is always staring them on their face.

As many as 70 persons have died in the three villages in last three years due to kidney ailments and 200 others are allegedly suffering from the same problem because of air and water contamination.

Untimely demise of bread-earning and able-bodied persons has completely shaken the economy of three villages forcing the people, including young women, to migrate to other cities in search of work.

Worse still, people of outside villages have stopped establishing marital relationship with the young boys and girls of the three villagers fearing that their kidneys might have already been affected by the disease.

Records from local activists mention at least 200 cases were diagnosed over the last three years, with at least 70 deaths, most of them of individuals of working age.

“This death figure is significantly higher than the highest figure of 229 per million population reported by a national level study in 2006,” says Gurudeb Behera, a local social activist who has been running from pillar to post seeking proper healthcare for the affected persons.

Recently, a fact-finding comprising Dr Kalyani Menon-Sen, Dr Nisha Biswas, Basudev Mahapatra and Ranjana Padhi visited the affected villages. They interviewed the villagers who narrated how they were completely impoverished by the disease.

“Most of the people in the three villages are landless agricultural workers. They depend on seasonal work and collection of forest produce to eke out their living. In the absence of limited facilities at the MKCG Medical College, patients are forced to resort to private doctors and clinics. Average treatment costs are reported to be in the range of 5-7 lakhs over two years.

Families have no alternative but to sell or mortgage their tiny landholdings land and meagre assets, and have been compelled to take loans from private sources at interest rates of 2-3 per cent per month,” said team member Dr Kalyani Menon-Sen.

All six members of Gouranga Sahoo family of P-Lakhimpur died of kidney ailments as they could not afford to the costly treatment.

Kamaraj Barma, a village head, informed that some people slip into depression when they are diagnosed with kidney ailments. He cited that a youth G Appana committed suicide when a few days after he was diagnosed with kidney problem.

The local population holds the view that the high rates of kidney disease afflicting the area are a consequence of contamination of ground water with toxic by-products of monazite processing at the local Indian Rare Earth Limited (IREL) facility located about one kilometer away from Badaputti village. The fact-finding team was shown water drawn from local tubewells, with thick sediment of some chalky substance at the bottom.

Every single household in the area is purchasing bottled water or has installed expensive water filters in their homes.

“The district administration and officials of IREL oppose this theory and offer the results of water testing conducted by the Regional Pollution Control Board, the State Public Health Engineering officials and a district medical official, which declared the water to be fit for drinking.  However, the team noticed that the tests tracked the presence of only two heavy metals (lead and cadmium) and did not test for the several other toxic by-products of thorium processing such as molybdenum, mercury and psyrium,” said team member Basudev Mahapatra.

What is heartening to note is that, – despite the clean chit given to the water from local tubewells, the district administration has taken up a scheme for providing drinking water via a pipeline from a new deep tubewell located about 2 km from Badaputti. This scheme is expected to be completed in three months.

Though the kidney affected patients need adequate dialysis facilities, the local MKCG Medical College and Hospital is not well-equipped to meet this gigantic demand, Dr Saroj K Panda, consultant nephrologist at the MKCG hospital, was quoted as saying to the fact-finding team.

Suryanarayan Patro, another senior minister in the state Cabinet and a leading lawmaker of Ganjam district expressed concern over the development.

“I didn’t know this. I will definitely take up the matter with the health department and get the matter enquired into. I will ensure that no more people suffer from kidney ailments here and die due to neglect,” said Mr Patro.

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