PHULPADA: The asphalt road from the block HQ of Narasinghpur cut through parched farmland before it takes a sharp turn into Phulpada village. It is a hot April day and any stranger out in the sun, be it a drought reporter, a hapless babu on a punishment assignment, can feel the furtive looks of villagers from windows and doorways.
The black-topped road soon tapers off into a dusty street where a deserted tube-well greets us. To its left is a hut, with no semblance of any human presence. The door opens into a small yard beyond which is a two-room concrete house. It is locked. To the left is a mud-thatch room with walls only on two sides separated from the verandah by bamboo sheeting.
Resting on the floor is Rabindra Behera, the skin stretched tight over his ribs and joints swollen as his wife Pramila helps him sit upright. He looks like a ghost.
For the past five years, Behera has been trying to understand what’s got him. Doctors at Baramba, about 30 km away, told him he has a high eosinophil count. The meds did not help but the money dried up.
A daily wager, Behera sold his cattle, and then the land. With treatment expenses rising, he sold off the two-room house to his second son-in-law. So he and his wife now live in this half-walled room by the yard. The monthly pension of Rs 300 from the government is the couple’s only source of livelihood, forget medical treatment.
“Can you get me an old age pension card too?” Pramila pleads, her sense of dignity holding her back from tears.
Five years and a fortune down the drain, 60-year Rabindra still does not know he ended up with chronic kidney disease (CKD). “They say, it is the water,” he says.
It’s called interstitial nephritis. Not something Phulpada’s residents can make anything of but it’s a curse they trace to the water they drink.
CKD is endemic in this part of Cuttack district, barely about 125 km from Bhubaneswar. The ground water is high on lead and iron, but the only source of drinking water are the tube-wells. There are half a dozen of them in Phulpada.
Bhikhyakari Behera is the village bard. “We know the water is bad. There’s a layer of some oily red substance on the surface of the water. But it’s all we have,” he says.
The villagers of Phulpada speak like it’s inevitable that they too will end up like Rabindra Behera soon. A fortnight ago, two young men perished to CKD. Bijay Panda of SHARP, a local NGO that is helping the villagers get basic diagnostics and treatment, says at least 882 villagers were registered at the Kanpur community health centre showing symptoms of CKD since 2013. At least 288 of them have died, he says. The government keeps no count.
Meanwhile, as the villagers of Phulpada jostle at the wells of red oily water, the Mahanadi, Odisha’s largest river system, flows quietly about 2 km away. The water level in the river has dropped drastically. “Getting water from pits dug into the bed of the Mahanadi is our only option but the government has not been able to find a solution to our water needs,” rues 70-year-old Raghunath Behera.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) sent a team to this part of Odisha last year to assess the situation so that it can to start a surveillance project. But that is stuck over funding issues. The State Government has approved a Rs 138 crore mega project for piped water supply to Narsinghpur block from the Mahanadi but that too has not taken off.
Meanwhile, a drought update: Phulpada’s six stand-posts have run dry because over at Berhampura, a kilometer away, someone with the financial resources has sunk a deep bore-well and sucked up all the water. So now, no water reaches the BPL families of Phulpada.