DEATH IS a constant threat in this village. Its residents can taste it in the water they drink, feel it in the fields they plough. It shows in the face of Tarun Sinha, 30, his eyes drooping, an unnatural yellow oozing out through eyelids that have become slits. His teeth are falling, the remaining ones now the colour of jaundice. The joints on his knees are swollen. His kidneys have failed.
Illness is not the word they use. “Iske ghar me maut aa gaya,” they say in this village, Supebeda, in Gariaband district on Chhattisgarh’s border with Odisha.
Government records show that over 54 people have died between 2009 and 2017 from kidney malfunction. The youngest, Duleshwari Netam who died last year, was 16, the oldest 62. And while villagers argue that the numbers are closer to 70, many more lives are under threat. A survey three months ago by a team led by the head of nephrology at Bhimrao Ambedkar Government Hospital, Raipur, found that of the 2,000 residents in the village, as many as 223 had failing kidneys.
When he vomited for the first time in early November, Sinha knew. “Just like so many others, my kidneys had started to fail.” In the two months since, he has barely been able to get out of bed and go to his land which is less than an acre. The medicines he takes are Ayurvedic, he said; he can’t afford to go to hospital. “If God gives me a miracle, I hope I will live,” he said. Otherwise, I am waiting for death.”
For some months now, deaths in Supebeda have caught public attention with the Opposition and the local media speaking for the villagers. All this has brought in research teams, from Raipur and ICMR in Delhi.
They have noted the presence of harmful metals in the water and the soil. In a letter dated July 6, the district’s chief medical officer states that 20 water and soil samples were taken, and the levels of chromium and cadmium were found higher than admissible. A report by the department of soil science and agricultural chemistry, Indira Gandhi Krishi Vidyalaya Raipur, says about the water samples: “As per the permissible limits recommended by WHO, nickel, chromium, cadmium and lead metals analysed were found higher amount. Some water samples showed higher level of zinc which needs confirmation by resampling.”
Said R Prasanna, director of health services, who visited Supebeda: “What is still not entirely clear is the exact reason for the kidney infections. It seems like a combination of factors of heavy metals in the soil as well as the water.”
Dr Puneet Gupta, the hospital’s nephrology head, told The Indian Express, “We have conducted surveys very recently, and of the 2,000 people, around 200 have kidney problems. This seems to be because of heavy metal, and health reports show signs of fluoride as well.”
The government response has largely focused on treatment. In December, it announced a special Supebeda ward at Ambedkar Hospital, 250 km away, and promised dialysis machines in Devbhog, the block headquarters 12 km away. Gupta said, “We are also looking to introduce an RO system that will filter the heavy metals out, and have also closed several borewells where the metal content was extremely high.”
In the last one month, the public health department has dug two pumps near a pond 3 km from the village. “But the pumps haven’t been working because of fluctuating electricity,” said Trilochan Sonwani, who left his government job in Raipur to fight the outbreak in his village. “Now the government has said it will install solar panels. But more importantly, how do we know this pond has no heavy metals? The public health department in Devbhog, which is building this, has told us they only have the ability to test for fluoride, not heavy metals. There were borewells in the village declared safe by them but shut down by other research teams.”
For the villagers of Supebeda, these visits have come a decade later than they should have. Prem Prakash Chhettrapal, a villager, said it was back in 2005 that they realised something was wrong with the water. “Young people kept dying; none of us knew why. To this day, Chhattisgarh has no medical facilities reachable for us. Imagine how bad it was back in 2005. We used to take those who fell ill either to Odisha or even to Visakhapatnam,” he said.
Villagers say they began writing to various government departments about the problem as far back as 12 years ago. In 2007, they raised the issue at a shivir in Koksera village nearby, and two years later a public health department team came to take water samples. In 2011, at another shivir, villagers complained and two borewells were shut. Since 2017, although the response has been stronger after the villagers went to the local media, they say their two principal demands haven’t been met. “One is drinking water that will not poison us. The second is jobs for those that have been left behind,” said Gopal Sonwani, kotwar of the village.
Health Minister Ajay Chandrakar announced compensation of Rs 20,000 for the families of the 54 who died of kidney ailments. Widows like Yashodha Sonwani, Baidehi Chhetrapal and Rashmi Sonwani find that amount too little in a village where the primary occupation is agriculture, the landholdings small. Many families are in debt after borrowing for treatment, and angry moneylenders are now calling. “I have asked for a government job so many times, cried in front of ministers and officials. I sleep every other night without food, but please think about our children,” Chhetrapal said.
The future of the children is a constant worry for Supebeda. They have written letters to the Prime Minister, declared that they want to be part of Odisha, threatened to leave the village, and refuse to vote for anyone in the elections.
“We are already suffering, but we have to try anything to draw the attention of the government so our children will not be in pain. They have given us knitting machines and cycles,” said Trilochan Sonwani. “The Tel Nadi that is less than 3 km away has running water. Can’t they just give us clean water from there through a pipe? Nobody comes to our homes for a cup of chai. Nobody wants to marry into our families. Look at what our children are drinking.”
He pointed at a group of children drinking water from a new tubewell next to the primary school. The tubewell was erected in December, complete with a tank above it. A little distance away is a cement circle, etched into the ground, the small remnants of a pipe still visible among some weeds. That was one of the tubewells shut down by the authorities six months ago for extremely high metal content in the groundwater. The distance from the new tubewell the children drink from: 20 feet.