DONA NANKA, India- Through his bloodshot, ruined eyes, ten-year-old Roshan Singh struggles to read his favourite comic book before readying for school in this remote and desolate village along the Indian-Pakistan border.
Singh, whom doctors say will soon be blind, has always drunk ground water drawn from communal handpumps that experts say is highly toxic and responsible for maiming scores of residents young and old.
“I fear the worst all the time. My parents also worry for me a lot,” Singh told AFP, nervously tugging at his school shirt in Dona Nanka village in Punjab state.
Since coming to power in May, nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to clean up the beloved, sacred Ganges river, describing its pollution as a national shame.
But in India’s northwest frontier, where another river is heavily contaminated with lead, uranium and other metals, residents have long been left to fend for themselves.
“Wheelchairs have become a way of life here. This is our destiny,” said 65-year-old farmer Maun Singh, sitting next to two of his sons, aged 25 and 18, who have gone blind.
His village and several others are clustered around a creek at the end of the Sutlej river. The Sutlej roars down from the Himalayas through India and into neighbouring Pakistan — before turning back into India again.
Experts suspect Indian factories and Pakistan tanneries pour untreated waste into the river where it eventually gathers and settles in its tranquil tailend, seeping into the ground water.
Although scientists are unsure whether India or Pakistan, or both, are to blame for the contamination, the consequences are staggering.
Blindness, deformed limbs, premature greying of hair, learning disabilities and skin diseases are common among the 1,200 residents, while wheelchairs can be seen everywhere.
“It is not just one student, I have seen so many others forced to quit school because of blindness or some other problem,” said local school principal Lovjeet Singh, adding that 108 out of 270 of his students are suffering from some disease or deformity.