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  • Writer's pictureShruti GOCHHWAL

India’s Minamata: The Man-Made Disease That Killed Thousands in Japan

Chilika Daad is a place in the Singrauli region in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The site is rich in the reserves of coal and thermal plants. Its residents are a community of displaced people who have had to resettle many times when NTPC Limited and NCL, the leading energy conglomerates planned to build coal and thermal power plants. Being a place with dense coal and thermal reserves, Singrauli should have been an abundant area. However, people here are far from happy.

It is due to the area being plagued with a number of unexplained health ailments that bear a close resemblance to the Minamata disease, one that broke in the year 1950 at the Minamata town in Japan.

What Is Minamata Disease?

minamata disease

Food being put in garbage, Credit: Canva

A neurological syndrome, minamata disease is caused by severe mercury poisoning. Its symptoms include a sense of numbness in hands and feet, weakness in muscles, impaired vision and hearing capacities. In severe cases, this disease has dangerous ramifications in the form of paralysis and coma.

The disease also leads to various problems like menstrual irregularities, stillbirths, anemia, and the like. All these problems are regularly experienced by people living in Chilika Daad. Even a cursory investigation is enough to reveal that the primary culprit behind it are the coal mines and the thermal power plants.

What Happened in Japan?

minamata disease in Japan

Power plants emitting gas, Credit: Canva

The origins of Minamata disease can be traced to the year 1956. During this time, methylmercury in the wastewater of industries that came from the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory was released. This toxic chemical accumulated in the Minamata Bay and the Shiranui sea and was consumed by the population residing there. It resulted in severe mercury poisoning which then haunted the entire region for more than 30 years.

A second outbreak of this disease happened during 1965 in Niigata Prefecture. Thousands of people’s lives were destroyed in these years while the government took concrete measures at a very later stage.

Outbreak of Minamata in India

minamata disease

thermal power plantd, Credit: Canva

For the past five years, people in the Singrauli district have been experiencing symptoms like stomach pains, excessive salivation, joint pain, and skin discoloration. All this is attributed to mercury concentration due to coal mines and thermal plants there. Mercury is passed into the atmosphere due to the vast quantities of coal that is burned in the thermal power plants. It enters the environment by way of soil and water, eventually entering into the homes of people through food and water. It then leads to the occurrence of chronic diseases and in severe cases, even death.

Mercury is deemed as the most toxic and poisonous component of coal. It has a tendency of accumulating in organisms. Frequently coming in contact with mercury has the disastrous consequence of making one’s nervous system impaired. Other health complications caused by mercury exposure include severe depression, memory loss, behavioral changes like hyperactivity, and personality changes. In some cases, it can also severely disrupt the functioning of the kidney of the affected person.

When the hair, nail, and blood samples of people residing in the affected regions were tested using advanced equipment, it revealed concentrated levels of mercury in them. This has been linked to the sensation of numbness in hands and feet, joint pain, and bouts of muscle pain in people. Although people have been complaining to the district magistrate in their area, no concrete measures have been taken till now.

Government needs to open its eyes to the plight of the population residing around India’s thermal power plants. The development activities should ensure that the lives of thousands of people are not impacted adversely during the process. Ways and means of controlling harmful industrial discharge should be devised. Only then people in these areas can live a healthy and prosperous life.

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