The People’s Scientist


Robin Dutta is a scientist with a difference. He is in many ways a people’s scientist. When he is not teaching at the department of Chemical Sciences in Tezpur University, he is with the people affected by fluoride and arsenic. He is a well-known face in the remote villages of Karbi Anglong where he often goes to take stock of the high concentration of fluoride in the groundwater and how it affects the local denizens.

His table in his office room is stacked with brochures and pamphlets his team has produced over the years to create awareness about fluoride contamination. As he holds a pamphlet, he smiles at a photograph. All the photographs on the pamphlets are real-life characters he had met on his many sojourns in the hills of Karbi Anglong.

Pointing to a photograph, Dutta says, “She is Rina Teronpi. When I had first met her, I mistook her to be a daily wage labourer. She was collecting crushed limestone near the Dengaon Higher Secondary School, where my team had stocked a truckload of crushed limestone gifted by the Bokajan Cement Factory.” But, when he started talking to her, he realised that Rina is a teacher of Thoiso Timung LP School in Dengaon.

Rina was initially residing in her native village. She decided to move to the small town called Dengaon so that her three children can have a better education. She bought a plot of land and built a house. After moving in, this mother of three was distraught when she saw the reddish water flowing from the tube well. She was worried about the excessive iron content in the water, she got to know that the area had high fluoride content as well.

Rina was worried. A neighbour told her about the signboard put up by the project “Fluoride Nilogon” of Tezpur University near the village square which had details about the ill-effects of fluoride contamination. She then enquired about the quality of water in the primary school she had taught. She was told that it had the same problem. She started having sleepless nights. “I did not want my children to suffer.”

She approached Dutta. She was very happy when Dutta agreed to her request to install a Fluoride Nilogon filter at her home. She was concerned about her own children as well as children of her school who needed protection from dental fluorosis. “She wanted us to install one at the primary school where she teaches. In return, Ms Teronpi offered us Poho, a piece of Karbi traditional attire,” smiles Dutta.

Dutta narrates another incident. A family had an adolescent daughter suffering from dental fluorosis. Her mother came to him and asked if he could cure her teeth. She was shocked when Dutta told her that her teeth could only be protected from further damage. “We felt sorry that we could not act in time to save her smile,” says Dutta.

Groundwater in vast areas of Assam as well as some other states of India is contaminated with fluoride in alarmingly high concentration. Fluoride is a deadly poison. A long-term ingestion of fluoride in drinking water and cooking water causes dental and skeletal fluorosis in addition to other health problems. Symptoms of excess fluoride induced disorders are prevalent some states of the country including Assam. Karbi Anglong and Hojai districts are the most fluoride-affected districts in Assam. 

Dutta’s team had devised Fluoride Nilogon — a low-cost and simple method for removal of fluoride from contaminated groundwater, viz., Fluoride Nilogon, Phosphoric Acid – Crushed Limestone Treatment method has been recently developed and successfully tested in field. The method removes fluoride efficiently and selectively without leaving any toxic residual in the water at a recurring cost of ₹ 1 per 100 L of water. The Fluoride Nilogon system can be custom designed to meet the requirements of the users ranging from small household to community. It uses a crushed limestone fixed-bed reactor where the water is treated for 3 hours in presence of a small quantity (0.00067 M) of phosphoric acid. The present workshop, sponsored by the UGC, New Delhi, is being organized for popularizing the Fluoride Nilogon method in the fluoride affected areas of central Assam with Dengaon located almost in the centre. 

Gradually, news about his team’s work spread. Kebede Gamo, a researcher from Ethiopia came for an on-field hands-on training on Fluoride Nilogon at Dengaon in Karbi Anglong in 2018. “They have a great problem of fluoride contamination of drinking water in Ethiopia. Kebede is in my laboratory at Tezpur University for some time to learn Fluoride Nilogon and to carry out some of his PhD experiments,” says Dutta.

Whenever Dutta is in the villages affected by fluoride, he has a busy day. “We had planned to install two household units during the day and ended up installing four including correction of one, wrongly installed by an untrained villager.” But busy days are also a fulfilling experience for him. “I feel satisfied that I have been able to do something to serve the society,” he says.