High Level probe sought into Kidney failure, related deaths in Odisha

A Citizens’ Enquiry has found that there are rising number of deaths and illnesses due to kidney failure in villages surrounding Indian Rare Earth Limited’s (IREL) monazite processing facility in Chhatrapur Block of Odisha’s Ganjam district. The team demanded immediate investigation by a high level expert team into the increasing incidences of chronic kidney disease in the surrounding villages in order to conclusively establish the causal factors and recommend actions for prevention and remediation.

The group that comprised human rights activists, Dr. Kalyani Menon Sen, Dr Nisha Biswas, Basudev Mahapatra and Ranjana Padhi conducted the fact finding in three of the affected villages (Badaputti, P-Lakhimpur and Baginipetta) of Chhatrapur Block. During their visit they met and interviewed 25 affected persons, their families and local leaders and District Collector and IREL officials, district health officials and the senior Consultant Nephrologist of MKCG Medical College. 

 At a press conference organised on January 21 in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, the team shared its key findings. One of the major findings was that at least 200 cases of chronic kidney diseases were reported in a span of last three years. This included the 70 deaths in which people died quite young. This number is reportedly higher than the national average of 229 per million population as per a national level study done by GK Modi and V. Jha titled, “The incidence of end-stage renal disease in India: a population-based study.”
The high occurrences of the diseases has had an adverse impact on the socio-economic fabric of the area. In a situation of very limited and near absent facilities at the nearby MKCG Medical College, patients suffering from various ailments are compelled to visit private hospitals depleting all their resources and selling or mortgaging their land holdings. The villages have been socially quarantined and hardly anyone from outside villages is willing to do any form of social exchange with the residents of these villages. Many children have had to join the work force and drop out of schools as adult members have fallen sick, the fact finding team reported with distress.

Suggested Role of IREL in increasing cases of Kidney Failures
It must be noted that the affected villages are also the sites where land was acquired on long-term lease by IREL, a PSU under the Department of Atomic Energy, in the late 1980s. The IREL is located about one km from the Badaputti village.

The acquired lands were thickly forested with cashew trees earlier, providing a source of income for the nearby communities. The mandatory afforestation that was carried out on the reverted land could not bear the same fertility and this caused a considerable loss to the community.

The fact finding highlighted the belief held by the local population that the high rates of kidney diseases afflicting the area are a result of the contamination of ground water with toxic by-products of monazite processing at the IREL. The team noted that the water drawn from local tube-wells had a thick sediment of some chalky substance at bottom and that every household had to install expensive RO filters in their homes.

Further, the team recorded that the district administration and officials of the IREL opposed the theory held by the local population, offering the results of water testing conducted by the Regional Pollution Control Board, the State Public Health Engineering officials and a district medical official, which declared the water to be fit for drinking. But the team had contrarian views on the tests. It said that the tests tracked the presence of only two heavy metals (lead and cadmium) and did not test for the several other toxic by-products of thorium processing such as molybdenum, mercury and psyrium.

Need for Investigation
The fact finding team also met Dr. Saroj K Panda, the consultant nephrologist at the MKCG hospital in Behrampur, who apart from confirming that the dialysis facilities at the hospital were indeed very limited leaving out many patients, who then had to visit private hospitals, also expressed the view that this phenomena was new to the area and definitely a result of one of the environmental factors. Since there are several research studies confirming the association of heavy metal elements with chronic kidney disease, he agreed that this aspect should be rigorously researched.

The team was able to access the report of a study undertaken by the district health department in 2015, following an intervention by the NHRC in response to a petition from a local person. The study report (a copy of which was shared by the CDMO’s office) speculated that likely causes could be contamination of water with heavy metals or pesticides, or inhalation of pollutants expelled into the air by the IREL facility.  The report recommended evacuation and resettlement of the affected villages pending investigation and remediation of the problem. However, the team found out that although this report was submitted to the State government three years ago (March 2015), no action whatsoever has been taken to follow up on the findings and recommendations.

Demands of The Fact Finding team
Condemning the silence of the Odisha government on this issue, the team has demanded immediate relief to affected individuals through free treatment at MKCG or other government facility with adequate infrastructure and expertise to handle the large patient load. The team has also demanded setting up a system for preventive and promotive measures such as regular village level medical camps for early identification and treatment of individuals suspecting any such symptoms. It also urged the State government to immediately work towards the right of the communities for safe and clean drinking water. Finally it demanded action to remove potentially toxic solid waste in and around the affected villages, in particular the waste dumps around the tailing ponds outside the IREL facility.



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