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Civic silence as killer water count climbs

An alarming number of patients are admitted to Howrah General Hospital each year, suffering from gastro-enteritis and other water-borne diseases. But the Howrah Municipal Corporation (HMC) authorities appear indifferent to the situation.

Barely eight months have passed since an outbreak of gastro-enteritis assumed an epidemic form and rocked the town of Howrah, where over 18 days, there had been eight deaths among a total of 2,715 cases.

“By the time the civic body realises the gravity of the threat, the situation will have spun out of control,” warned a senior official of the health department. “During the outbreak last October, it was we who brought the situation under control,” he added.

According to official reports, the enteric outbreak in Howrah was caused by the consumption of highly-contaminated water. The state health directorate admitted that the water distribution pipelines had sprung leaks and sewerage water had seeped in, causing the outbreak. Besides, in a few places,water supply lines spill over drains.

The health department collected samples from a number of wards and sent them for tests to the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED). The NICED reports confirm the existence of cholera bacilli. Samples collected from the affected parts also indicate the presence of faecal coliform (found in human excreta).

Official statistics of the health department reveal alarming figures. In 2001, a total number of 47,042 cases were reported, with 77 fatalities. In 2002, the figure climbed to 61,974 cases, with 89 deaths. This year, the first three months have claimed seven lives and 12,308 cases have been reported.

“There is nothing unusual in the number of cases reported,” observed the superintendent of the Howrah General Hospital. “In a few slums, residents have drilled a hole into the pipeline and installed tubewells to draw water from it. These are outlets from where the water is getting contaminated,” he added.

His views are echoed by mayor Gopal Mukherjee.“Who told you that gastro-enteritis, dysentry and other such diseases are caused by contaminated drinking water' There could be many other reasons. We have done all that we could do,” he retorted, when the official figures were placed before him.

Subhash Dutta of Howrah Ganatantrik Nagarik Samity, a social welfare organisation, alleges that the HMC has not done much, apart from repairing the pipelines at points where the leaks were minimal. Dutta had lodged a complaint with the Howrah police and has charged the municipal authorities with culpable homicide, not amounting to murder.

Mayor Mukherjee turned a deaf ear to Dutta’s threats and said the situation was “normal”.

But residents of wards 16, 17, 30, 31, 36 and 47 are probably courting trouble by drinking the the unhygienic water.

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