Poisoned Punjab: Children with intellectual disabilities, severe skin allergies are common in this village

Ground visits by DTE in Dharangwala village reveal 12-13 cancer deaths every year, teetotallers with liver cirrhosis

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Friday 02 June 2023
Labourers in Dharangwala are directly exposed to the canal water and have severe skin issues. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE_

Dharangwala village in Fazilka district in Punjab was once known as mini-California for its citrus orchards, according to its residents. But now, it is better known for its increasing disease burden in the last few years, which has not even spared the children. 

Ground visits by Down To Earth (DTE) have shown a high burden of diseases in several Punjab villages. Cancer cases, mystery illnesses and dental problems are familiar in numerous villages. Industry effluents and municipal water polluting water sources and air is their common thread. 

Dharangwala is one of the worst sufferers. A verbal survey following an application in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) revealed that around 40 children in the village of 450 households have intellectual disabilities. 

Read more: Action falls short as far as industrial effluent pollution in India is concerned

However, villagers suspect at least 50 children were affected, but many families refuse to discuss it for fear of social stigma and lack of professional help. 

This reporter also came across several children with cerebral palsy and other undiagnosed developmental disabilities during her ground visits to other villages. 

Adults also reported a variety of diseases like cancer, skin conditions and liver issues. “In 2022 alone, cancer claimed 13 lives in the village. At present, there are 10 cancer patients in Dharangwala,” said 48-year-old farmer Rajinder Singh. 

A 14-year boy, a classmate of Singh’s son, also died of cancer recently.

Mohan Pal, a doctor and a resident of Dharangwala, told DTE that three new cases of cancer had been diagnosed recently. “Every year, 12-13 cancer deaths are being recorded in the village,” he noted. Pal’s brother also died due to cancer last year. 

Doctor Mohan Pal (in red shirt) showing a picture of his brother who died due to cancer last year. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

The problem, according to villagers, is primarily due to Buddha nullah, a 40-kilometre-long stream that passes through Ludhiana city before merging with the Sutlej river in the Ludhiana district. These waters enter the Abohar branch of the Sirhind Canal, which reaches Dharangwala.

The nullah is also behind Gaunspur villagers’ dental issues and mysterious ailments in Burj Mohar village, also located in Fazilka. Both these villages also report a high cancer burden.

“At least 1,500 people in Dharangwala have severe skin conditions,” said Singh. “Most households have ill family members, but people are afraid to go to hospitals and get a diagnosis. Many also lack the resources for treatment.”

Read more: Punjab Assembly Elections 2022: The rivers that gave Punjab its name, are dying; But is anybody paying attention

Effluents from industries in the region and municipal waste gets dumped into the nullah, which has turned black and has a nauseating odour. Several studies have documented the presence of heavy metals in the stream. 

“The canal is black due to pollution in March and April,” a resident told DTE. The village had a common reverse osmosis water filtration system installed 10 years ago by the government. It stopped working five years ago.

Heavy metals are also linked to cancer. Elements such as chromium, nickel, arsenic and mercury can also damage the functioning of the brain, lungs, kidney, liver, blood composition and other vital organs. 

Alarmingly, people with no history of alcohol consumption are being diagnosed with liver cirrhosis — a condition that damages the organ permanently. In the last year alone, there were 8-10 such cases, according to Balkaran Singh, a farmer.

Sunil Kumar, a 25-year-old labourer, cannot work anymore. Wounds cover his hands and legs. They would bleed suddenly. “It is painful,” he said. Similarly, 45-year-old Dhyalchander has been suffering for the last 10 years. He gets pustules that bleed when exposed to water or the sun.

“Labourers are directly exposed to the canal water and get severe skin issues. Kumar is currently on anti-allergic medications and antibiotics,” Pal explained.

Read more: Groundwater quality deteriorating in Tamil Nadu’s industrial areas: CSE

The groundwater in the village is not fit for consumption either, likely tainted by the polluted canal water. The total dissolved solids (TDS) level in the groundwater is much higher than the permissible limit of 500 milligrammes per litre, Singh said. The water is naturally saline.

TDS represents dissolved organic matter and inorganic salts, including sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, bicarbonates and sulphates.  

Premature ageing is another concern. Many village residents look much older than their age. People over 50 lose all their teeth, claimed Singh. The reporter had found the same issues in Gaunspur as well. 

The village has also seen a spike in infertility cases.

Even breeding animals has become diffult as the cattle do not conceive, villagers said. “Earlier, a three-year-old buffalo could produce milk. Now, buffaloes can do so only after reaching five years of age,” Satinder Singh, a farmer, said.

Ten years ago, every house had at least one buffalo, Satinder said. “Now, only 1 per cent of the houses have the animals. Veterinarians have asked us to switch out the water they drink,” he added.

Read more: Ludhiana: Ineffective manhole cleanup, chemicals disposed in sewers emerge as theories for Giaspura tragedy

NGT case

Taking stock of the health impact of the polluted canal on the village, an advocate, HC Arora, filed a case in 2022 in the NGT against the state of Punjab. The NGT constituted a team to determine the source of contamination of the canal water and the causes of deformities and diseases in a large number of children.

The district commissioner for Fazilka was fined Rs 5,000 for not taking action. Soon, the DC conducted a door-to-door health survey.

“The surveyors found 475 patients. But the catch is that people were not tested. It was a verbal survey,” Balkiran Singh, a farmer, said.

In January 2023, the NGT joint committee found the water contamination levels within prescribed limits. However, the water samples drawn were not examined for heavy metals, the case document noted.

This story is part of a series on the health problems faced by people of Punjab due to pollution. 

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