Poisoned Punjab: Three children in this Fazilka village family are intellectually disabled but there’s no aid

Contaminated canal, groundwater linked to huge disease burden in Churi Wala village, show ground visits by DTE

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Tuesday 06 June 2023
Brothers Vinod (19) and Dipu (11) are both intellectually disabled. Their grandmother, who can barely speak, feeds Dipu while Vinod begs for food from the villagers. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE_

Diseases and misery knock at every doorstep of Churi Wala, one of several villages in Punjab reporting a high disease burden. Entire generations are being born with intellectual disabilities, according to the villagers.

This hamlet is also dependent on water polluted by industry effluents and municipal waste, just like the other villages reporting unusually high numbers of cancer cases, skin and dental issues and intellectual disabilities in children.

Read more: Critically polluted: Treated effluents from Vapi CETP don’t meet safety standards, find pollution control boards

Churi Wala is located in the Fazilka district in southern Punjab, along with Dharangwala and Burj Mohar villages. With 1,100 houses and a population of 15,000, the village primarily relies on canal water. 

Ground visits by this reporter have shown a common thread between these ailing villages — Buddha nullah, a 40-kilometre-long stream. Groundwater, according to the residents, is saline and unfit for consumption. It is likely tainted by polluted canal water. Still, some villagers consume it.

Sewers carrying industrial, agricultural, domestic and municipal waste have been entering Buddha nullah for a long time. In 2010, the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests declared Buddha Nulla a critically polluted area. 

The nullah 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 then reaches the villages. The stream is black and is not suitable for drinking. 

It is also behind Gaunspur villagers’ dental issuesmysterious ailments in Burj Mohar village and severe skin allergies in Dharangwala. These villages all report a huge cancer burden too. 

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

Down To Earth met three children with intellectual disabilities in Churi Wala. Overall, 50-60 children in the village suffer from intellectual disabilities. “Many families do not want to share information due to social stigma,” Jait Kumar, a social worker, told DTE

The story of siblings, Vinod (19) and Dipu (11), is tragic. They are both intellectually disabled. Their sister is also affected. 

The brothers live with their father, Somlal, a daily wage labourer and paternal grandmother. The siblings lost their mother, Indra, to cancer five years ago. Poonam (18) suffers from the same condition. She resides with her older, married sister in a neighbouring village.

The family lives in extreme poverty. Their house, with two small rooms, has developed cracks on the surface. A cot and a basket of rotis (flatbread) could be seen in one room, with houseflies hovering over the food. The other room was filled with fuel wood. 

Surinder Pal Singh Oberoi, a Dubai-based business tycoon and philanthropist, helped the family by donating Rs 1,000 per head. But the aid has stopped now, Kumar told DTE.

The grandmother, who can barely speak, feeds Dipu while Vinod begs for food from the villagers. They collect drinking water from their neighbours, which is supplied by the department of water supply and sanitation under the state government.

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

DTE visited the government-run facility that supplies canal water to the villagers. There was no one manning the facility on the day of the visit, May 25, 2023. 

The canal water is directly supplied to people’s homes without undergoing primary filtration at the facility, alleged Kumar, who accompanied the reporter. 

Several studies have documented the presence of heavy metals in the Buddha nulla stream. Elements like chromium, nickel, arsenic and mercury can also damage the functioning of the brain, lungs, kidney, liver, blood composition and other essential organs.  

Gulshan (16) also has an intellectual disability like Vinod. Her family said she has a certificate proclaiming her with 80 per cent disability. Her cousin, who lives in Sabuana village in Fazilka, also has a similar condition.

Gulshan (16) also has an intellectual disability. Photo: Vikas Choudhary /CSE

Gulshan (16) also has an intellectual disability. Photo: Vikas Choudhary /CSE

The teenager’s mother said the cousin was undergoing treatment at a Ludhiana hospital, where she went through an operation to help her walk around five years ago. But this failed. 

Her father, a labourer, has already shelled out Rs 50,000-70,000 on her treatment. It has been two years since the family halted the treatment. They also consume canal water.

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

Karanjit, an 18-year-old resident of the village, has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. His disability is a 100 per cent, the government certificate showed. He has gone through six operations at a government hospital to help him walk. But nothing has worked. The family has spent Rs 20,000 so far.

“Doctors do not know the reason for his condition. He was born this way and he cannot talk. Karanjit is not currently under medications,” his mother said.

The family does not get frequent water supply from the waterworks department and rely on the saline groundwater. The total dissolved solid (TDS) levels are 1000 milligrammes per litre, higher than the permissible limit of 500 mg/L.

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

There are many cancer cases, which are also often concealed. “We have seen at least 50 cancer deaths in the village in the last 10-12 years,” claimed Kumar.

Rukma Devi (60), has had endometrial cancer since 2015. She visits Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment & Research Institute in Rajasthan’s Bikaner every two months for treatment. She used to consume groundwater eight years ago but has now switched to canal water. 

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

The canal water was black in colour in March-April, Kumar explained. Villagers of Dharangwala also reported the same issue. Some 10 years ago, the state government had installed an reverse osmosis water filtration system in the village. But it has gone defunct now.

Private players have entered the market. They treat water and send sell 20 litres of water for Rs 10. Some 100 houses buy water from the private unit, Kumar explained. Others cannot afford it. 

“Many people have come and spoken to the village. But no steps have been taken to help the people in need,” Kumar rues.

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

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