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What ails Mustafabad, cancer or neglect?

Source : The Hindu, 23 Jaunary 2017, New Delhi

As the number of cancer cases rises, area MLA claims officials not taking action despite his complaint 2 months ago

On a hot April afternoon last year, Noornisa was stitching a pair of freshly dyed denims at her home in Shiv Vihar in north-east Delhi’s Mustafabad area when she felt severe pain in her lower abdomen. After several tests, the doctors at Guru Tegh Bahadur (GTB) Hospital told her that she had stage II ovarian cancer.

The 52-year-old worker, who swears to have never consumed any form of tobacco or alcohol, is still clueless about the cause of the cancer. “We don’t eat out as we cannot afford it. I drink only two cups of tea a day. Even the doctors do not know what caused the disease,” she said. Noornisa is no stranger to cancer. In fact, there is a cancer patient in each of the three houses next to hers. In the three lanes of Shiv Vihar Phase VI, where she lives, The Hindu came across 11 cancer cases; two of the patients had died in last two months.
Letter to govt

Concerned about the growing number of health complaints of the residents, the area MLA, Jagdish Pradhan, raised the issue in the recently held Assembly session. He even wrote a letter to the Delhi government two months ago, asking it to shut down of the illegal units dealing in dyeing and acid washing of denims. These units are mostly run by the families living in the area from their homes.

“Many residents of my constituency are severely suffering from polluted air and water as highly active chemicals are used for colouring of jeans,” he wrote in his letter. Mr. Pradhan said these units have become a safety hazard for everyone, but the officials aren’t taking any action. “Most of these units are illegal. No safety measures are taken while using the chemicals and the officials have turned a blind eye. The acid after dyeing the jeans goes into the drains and the toxic water flows. Cancer cases are going up in my constituency,” he said.

The government officials in their defence say they have conducted surprise checks and sealed some of the units, but they keep springing up in some house or the other.

No cancer data
There is no data on the number of cancer cases registered from Mustafabad. Every hospital has to update the number of cancer patients under National Cancer Registry Programme, but Dr. Sunil Kumar, Regional Director of Health Services (East) and Medical Director of GTB Hospital, said that cancer registry is not established. “Earlier, it was noticed that most of the patients came from the gangetic region. But now that pattern is not prevalent. Since the data is not updated under the Cancer Registry programme, one cannot conclude. But if people are suffering from different kinds of cancer, it means that some environmental factor is playing a role,” said Dr Kumar.

Shiv Vihar, where most of the illegal colouring units are located, has a population of over 80,000 people. According to its residents, it is among the ‘most backward’ places in Delhi; the area is also among the 90 minority districts identified by the UPA government.
The streets of Shiv Vihar smell of sewage and there’s an acute crisis of potable water as the area lacks public water supply.

Workshop at home

The homes here double up as workshops -- from door to door women can be seen working on sewing machines, packing lime powder and making cardboard boxes. Sudha, a 38-year-old mother of two, lost her left eye three years ago while packing lime powder. “Seven people in our lane, doing the same work, have lost eyesight,” she said.

Environment experts have expressed concern over the hazards of the ever-growing “informal” market. In 2014, Toxics Link, an NGO, identified 18 ‘potential hotspots’ in Delhi from where unorganised small-scale industries were contaminating the city's environment by releasing toxic pollutants. “Mustafabad is among the potential hotspots. In these areas, the toxics and chemicals go directly in the ground, contaminating the soil, the water and the air, as there is no infrastructure in place. There is bound to be impact on people’s health in these areas and it shows in the form of some disease,” said Ravi Aggarwal of Toxics Link.

“These areas are growing and it only proves poor implementation of government policies.”

Aware of risks

Noornisa’s neighbour, Furqan Begum, a 73-year-old woman, died of throat cancer on January 2. Begum’s husband, Ahmed Raza, passed away on the same date five years ago after battling colon cancer. “In every other house, someone is suffering from a disease,” said Nagma, Begum’s daughter-in law.

The families residing in Shiv Vihar know of the risks involved in the kind of work they do. Still Noornisa, who is undergoing chemotherapy, has not stopped working. “At least, I can feed my children and die in peace.”

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