In UP village, cancer is a common visitor as govt looks away
Deoband, Saharanpur: Mohammad Sonu and Shaheen look helplessly at their three-year-old son Aarif, as he plays half-heartedly by himself on the living room floor. The young parents cannot believe that even before they could start investing in their son’s education, they must struggle for his very survival.
A few months ago, Aarif was diagnosed with acute leukemia. From that moment, Sonu, a daily wager in Rankhandi village, who largely does construction work in Saharanpur town 50 kms away, has started to work double shifts to be able to afford his son’s treatment. Shaheen, a homemaker, has left housework to her sister-in-law and thrown herself into Aarif’s care, taking him for treatment to the Muzaffarnagar district hospital, then to clinics in Delhi, and now back and forth to the Sanjay Gandhi Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences (SGPGIMS) in Chandigarh. All doctors have given up, she says, and Aarif is now on pain relief medication.
“Everyone knows that the poisonous water is causing cancer. My son is going to die, and still, no one does anything,” says Shaheen with wet eyes.
Rankhandi, a village with largely low and middle-income farm and construction labourers, has an inordinate number of residents diagnosed with cancer. Every third house has a cancer patient. According to the panchayat president Dinesh Pundir, the population of this village is 35,000. As he recalls it, the first person died of cancer in 1997, but many have since but the situation has become grim since the last five years. “There is no count of people who have died due to cancer here,” says Pundir. “But the number is not less than 100.”
Without even the slightest hesitation, Pundir surmises that the prevalence of cancer in Rankhandi is thanks to contamination of their groundwater by effluents from a nearby sugar factory.
“The problem is due to chemicals released from the Triveni Deoband Sugar Unit that joins the drain that then flows into our village. The mill has affected our village’s groundwater very badly. If you keep the water taken from handpump in any utensil for few hours, the water becomes yellow and the utensil gets black. We know the water is not fit for drinking, but we drink it because there is no other option,” Pundir says.
Of the many sugar mills in the Deoband region, Triveni Sugar and Industries Ltd is one of the largest. It is part of the seven sugar units across UP under the Triveni Engineering and Industries Ltd owned by billionaire Dhruv Mohan Sawhney, which also ranks among the top three sugar producers in the country. The company did not reply to emails seeking details about effluent plants and a response to allegations of pollution. (Have send a detailed questionnaire for response over email)
Villagers allege that in just the past six months, 32 people, including children and the elderly, have died due to diseases caused by contaminated water. Gulab Singh, a cancer patient from the village, says that his family has spent over Rs 3 lakhs on his treatment, but he knows that he is not going to live much longer.
An upset farmer, 43-year-old Pintu Rana reels off the names of the deceased, nearly all of whom he knew personally: “Shyam Singh, Naseeb Singh, Dharampal Singh, Om Prakash, Om Pal Rana, and many others have succumbed to cancer. Five people, including my father, uncle and brother have died due to cancer due to contaminated water in the village. The administration is sleeping.”
Rana says that the condition of water is so bad in the village that few bathe their cattle in it. Fish occasionally die and float in the freshwater ponds in the area – a sign of a spike in contamination. Rana and Pundir claimed that their relatives from outside their village have stopped visiting Rankhandi out of fear. “The water quality is a problem even when we try to get our sons married,” says Rana, explaining that few families wanted to get their daughters married to youth in the village because of Rankhandi’s “cancer village” reputation.
The contaminated water has also affected crops. According to Raj Kumar Singh, the manager of Thakur Phool Singh Memorial Intercollegiate, the polluted water stunts the growth of their crops. Singh, like other villagers, demanded that the effluent runnels be concretised, covered and not left open.
“More people will die in the coming days if the government doesn’t do something immediately,” says Rana. Pundir adds that they have complained to the district administration and also to the health department several times. “But no one ever comes to help us,” he says in a frustrated tone.
Social activist Vijaypal Singh, based in Saharanpur, says that he wrote several letters in 2005 to the National Human Rights Commission, Rashtrapati Bhavan, State Pollution Control Board, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s office and also the Governor, but not even a single letter got a reply. “After one of my friends filed a writ in Allahabad High Court, the Triveni sugar mill installed a water treatment plant in 2006, but it only works on paper,” says Singh. “The treatment plant is run only when the officers come for inspection. Truth will come out if you check the quality of water of this runnel.”
R K Mittal, the additional general manager at the production department of the Deoband sugar mill insists that the mill’s effluents have nothing to do with the cancer in the village. “Cancer in Rankhandi has been a problem for ages. Our mill has a treatment plant, and although the treated water is not good for drinking, it is not bad either,” said Mittal.
Like in most cases of industrial pollution, it is difficult to establish direct causality between the effluents and deteriorating health, but several doctors and scientists in the area do present strong linkages that could be investigated seriously by the government. India is today the world’s largest producer of sugar, and a majority of it comes from Uttar Pradesh. Effluent management, though, has been abysmal, and courts have pulled up hundreds of sugar mills in UP, and even shut many down for releasing untreated waste into the environment. Yet, few sugar producers comply with anti-pollution norms. A combination of economic heft and strong political connections, makes the sugar industry almost invulnerable.
Senior water scientist Dr Vashisht Bharadwaj, based in the adjoining Muzaffarnagar district, and formerly with the irrigation department, says that the water around Rankhandi has excessive arsenic, and long term exposure through drinking water and food farmed using this water, can cause cancer and skin lesions. “The arsenic level is beyond the permissible level (0.01 mg per litre), because of the waste and other toxins which come from the sugar mill. It’s not only the runnel that is polluted, but the entire Deoband channel, and it later joins the river Kaali, which everyone knows is in a terrible state,” the water scientist says. He explains that the problem of cancer due to polluted water has gripped all of sugar-producing western Uttar Pradesh. He warns that since many rivulets from Uttar Pradesh meet the Yamuna river, the national capital region (NCR) could also start facing severe issues in the near future.
Dr Deepak Agarwal, a senior cancer specialist based in Lucknow confirms that excessive polluting elements such as arsenic work as a catalyst, increasing the risk of cancer. “No one can deny that polluted water in that area could be the leading cause of cancer,” he said.
The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) B S Sodhi in Muzzaffarnagar did not wish to comment in the issue except for admitting that “the problem was not new” and that the district hospital staff were trying their best to treat the patients. When 101reporters spoke to Bhuvanesh Ram, an officer at the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, he said he was hearing about Rankhandi’s allegations for the first time. “As per my knowledge there is a treatment plant. I am not sure if it is functioning or not. I will get this checked,” he said, adding that he knows about the problem of cancer in western Uttar Pradesh due to arsenic and pollution.
With inputs from Khilendra Gandhi.
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