Padmakumar, Associate Professor, General Medicine, Alappuzha Government Medical College, told Business Line.
The only solution to this serious problem is "the setting up of required infrastructure such as high-capacity sewage treatment plants at Pampa and Sannidhanam and proper drainage systems, keeping in mind the ever-increasing number of pilgrims every year to arrest the discharge of faecal and other hazardous wastes into the river," he pointed out.
"Water-borne diseases appear to have become endemic in Kuttanad, which is surrounded by water and lies below the sea level, due to the contamination of drinking water ," Dr Padmakumar said.
A major water-borne disease that has become common throughout the year is Hepatitis, caused by drinking water contaminated by human excreta.
A study conducted on the contamination of the drinking water in Kuttanad by the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, said the presence of coliform bacteria was very high, he said.
According to the WHO criterion, drinking water should not contain coliform bacteria at all, he pointed out.
Realising the seriousness of the issue, projects aimed at keeping the river clean were included in the first phase of Pampa Action Plan (PAP), under the National River Conservation Programme, and approved by the Central Government about nine years ago.
In addition, dozens of super-speciality hospitals and hotels have come up on the banks of the river Pampa and the waste from many of these institutions are discharged into the river, aggravating the situation further, he alleged.
Given this situation, the KSPCB sources said, "water quality of Pampa river should be improved/upgraded in its entire stretch, not only for use of water for pilgrims and in the townships situated within the basis, but also for improving water quality in the downstream stretches, especially in the water logged areas of Kuttanad and Vembanadu Lake." Non-implementation of the first phase of PAP designed to arrest the discharge of all kinds of waste including chemicals and faecal material into Pampa has become a cause of concern as the next Sabarimala Pilgrimage season is to begin on November 16, Mr Nair said.
The Directorate of National River Conservation (DNRC), under the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), had accepted the Rs 319.70-crore project, submitted by the State Government on December 19, 2002, to be completed in three phases, following the inclusion of the River Pampa in the NRCP in June, 2001.
Subsequently, for the implementation of the first component of the project involving a total investment of Rs 18.45 crore, the NRC Directorate had sanctioned its 70 per cent share of the cost — Rs 12.91 crore in June, 2003. The Centre had also made available Rs 1.75 crore as advance to the State, which is said to have utilised Rs1.46 crore for constructing two check-dams and two bathing ghats.
But even after seven years, it has not set up the essential infrastructure required to stop pollution of the river Pampa.
The Government has, however, set up full-fledged cardiology centres en-route the steep 4 km climbing path from Pampa to Sannidhanam to help pilgrims with heart ailments.
According to Dr Padmakumar, devotees above 40 years of age, who have a history of heart ailments, should undergo a pre-pilgrimage medical check-up and obtain clearance from qualified physicians before embarking on the pilgrimage.
According to doctors who have performed duty at Pampa, most of the pilgrims who report complaints related to heart ailments have not observed the austerity measures for the specified period. There should also be an awareness campaign launched in all the States amongst devotees on the need to keep the trekking path mainly from Pampa to Sannidhanam clean.
Besides, they should be aware of the arduous climbing stretch in this area, they said, adding that, "the cooperation of the pilgrims and others engaged in commercial activities is also essential to ensure overall safety."