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Kids in Punjab villages losing sight to polluted drinking water


Vikas Kahol | Fazilka (Punjab), August 16, 2010

Shankar Singh, 22, lost his eyesight a decade ago. His younger brother, Visakha Singh, who had no vision problem when he was born, too, lost his sight as he grew up. Welcome to Dona Nanka, a village on the Indo-Pak border where children are going blind apparently after drinking contaminated water.

Siblings Shankar and Visakha Singh of Dona nanka village were born with perfect eyesight

At least a dozen children were either born blind or have been gradually losing sight within a few years of birth. "I started losing my sight when I was studying in the fifth standard. Gradually, I turned completely blind," Shankar says.

It's the same story in several villages nearby. At Teja Ruhela and Noor Shah villages, scores of children are similarly going blind. Residents say together these villages have at least 50 children and adults who have lost their vision to contaminated water.

At Teja Ruhela, Veena, now 7, lost sight in one eye when she was barely two years old. Veena's father Gurnam Singh took her to Sriganganagar in Rajasthan to restore her eyesight. She underwent an operation but it was not successful.

Shimla Bai, who will turn 11 this year, was born blind. She cannot keep her eyelids open for long as it hurts. Thirteen-year-old Saroj and her friend Jyoti have also been losing sight slowly. These villages drink groundwater hoisted to the surface by several hand-driven pumps.

Shankar's father Mohinder Singh draws water from a hand pump and pours it into a glass.

In about 20 minutes, the water turns yellowish.

"This is what we have been drinking for years," he says.

"There is no other source from which we can draw clean drinking water," he adds.

The government, on its part, has simply painted warnings on the walls of houses that the groundwater is unfit for human consumption.

Some NGOs, or non-government organisations, carried out a survey in these villages. They suspect that the groundwater has become toxic as there is a high incidence of blindness in addition to mental and other physical abnormalities among villagers.

In Laduka village, there has been a spate of deaths blamed on hepatitis. In the past two years, about a dozen persons have also died of jaundice linked to water contamination.

Pritpal Singh from the Baba Farid Centre for Special Children in Faridkot says they have collected samples of hair, urine and water to establish the possible cause of the ailments.

"The samples are being tested. A cocktail of toxins and pollutants in the water could be the culprit. In addition to losing vision, children have early greying of hair, skin problems and mental retardation. No one-human beings, cattle, crops or birds-appear healthy," he says.

Neeraj Atri, chairman of NGO Active Voice, says the affected cluster of villages is situated near a drain called Chand Bhan, which carries industrial waste and untreated toxin to the villages.

He adds that these villages have recorded a considerable drop in yield from farms and milch animals.

Villagers say they do not have access to potable water. While the government asked villagers to stop drawing water from hand pumps, it made arrangements to provide clean drinking water in one village only.

"At Teja Ruhela, only 80 out of 500 families have access to the erratic water supply now. What about the remaining villages?" asks villager Rajo Bai. She says water is supplied by tankers only if some VIP has to visit the village.

Experts at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh, however, say that attributing the blindness afflicting villagers to groundwater contamination is not right.

"The matter sounds serious. It calls for a thorough investigation," says Prof Amod Gupta, head, Advanced Eye Centre at PGIMER. According to him, the department of community medicine at PGIMER is equipped with facilities to carry out such a study and find out the reasons for the rising cases of blindness that he says he is hearing for the first time.

The authorities at the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), however, rely on their own samples and findings. "The groundwater is not toxic," says Babu Ram, member-secretary of PPCB. The PPCB recently carried out a survey in the area and collected water samples. The results indicate the presence of inordinately high total dissolved solids (TDS) in groundwater. There was no trace of toxins, including arsenic, chromium, nickel and zinc

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