By Brij Khandelwal
Agra, Dec 29 (IANS): Amid all talks of development in India in the 21 century, hundreds of residents of Pachgai Patti village -- just a few kilometres from the iconic 17th century monument of love, Taj Mahal -- are still forced to lead the lives of cripples in the absence of safe potable drinking water.
These villagers move around with crooked limbs or with other physical deformities due to the ill-effects of excess fluoride in underground water they are forced to consume and use it for other routine chores as they have no other alternative.
The village, situated in Agra district, is said to have the dubious distinction of reporting maximum number of disabled persons from the area. More than seven decades after Independence, this village with a population of more than a 1,000 faces shortage of potable drinking water.
For the past several days now, the villagers have been on a relay fast to demand piped Ganga Jal, which is planned to be supplied to the neighbouring urban clusters on the Shamshabad Road.
Advocate Girish Chandra Sharma, who is leading the agitators, told IANS that the underground water in the entire area is affected by fluoride and thus highly toxic for human consumption.
"A large number of people have fallen victims to the malady, leading to their physical deformities. Many cannot even walk straight," he pointed out.
"The Prime Minister had launched a Rs 4.18 crore water project for the area on January 9, 2019, but we do not want underground water through handpumps or overhead water tanks, as such water is unfit for human consumption. The Ganga Jal pipeline should be extended to our villages, which is not too far from here."
Sharma pointed out that high fluoride content in groundwater had reduced its residents to "walking skeletons".
Efforts by various government agencies to treat water have run aground for want of proper monitoring and follow-up action.
"Imagine, a whole village full of physically challenged persons with no hope or light at the end of the tunnel," he quipped.
Last winter, 50-year-old Than Singh, a daily wager, died in agony due to his physical deformities. He had not stirred out of his modest home since 2012, except for a few visits to the doctors. His last day was spent on a cot, as his wife fed him to keep the flame of life flickering.
Than Singh told IANS a few months before his demise: "Someday, I will hang myself or throw myself before an oncoming truck to end the agony of my existence." He showed a bagfull of medicines which he was forced to consume to remain alive.
Like Than Singh, there are scores of other villagers who cannot move around due to their physical disabilities. Women in their 30s look older than their grandmothers. A few move around with hunched backs.
An elderly villager said: "All these people suffer from some or the other physical ailment due to high fluoride content in underground water in this area. No one has bothered to come and check in what conditions the villagers are forced to live."
"Doctors have told us to stop drinking this underground water and instead buy filtered water or install RO systems at home. But how many can afford it?" asked a farmer.
Another elderly villager lamented: "Even though the village has been in media focus for many years and many officials have visited us, no concrete action has come forth to redress the situation. A treatment plant was installed for the village some years ago, but it remains non-functional for want of maintenance.
"Those who cannot afford expensive RO plants in their homes are forced to depend on water from hand pumps and submersible pumps. But this water is dangerously toxic. People have been told so many times not to use this water."
Many homes have now installed RO filters to purify water, while others buy treated filtered water in 20-litre containers, which is a big drain on their resources.
A young villager showed a black filter cylinder taken out from an RO machine. "Every few days, it has to be cleaned and frequently changed. This means more expenses. The government plant does not work. So many complaints have been submitted to the authorities, but no one turns up to redress the problem. Even politicians stay off the village," he rued.
Pachgai Patti is situated close to the busy Shamshabad Road. With the construction of the inner city ring road connecting the Yamuna Expressway and the Agra-Lucknow Expressway, land prices in the area have skyrocketed.
"That is the reason why people are not leaving the village, which also gets water for irrigation from a minor of Agra canal, which brings all the pollutants and toxic substances from the Okhla via the industrial clusters of Faridabad, Ballabhgarh and Palwal," explained one villager.
And till powers that be take note of the plight of the villagers, they are forced to curse their fate and go about their daily lives in the shadow of misery and helplessness.