The Killer’s called Uranium

Uranium mining in Jharkhand is leading to mass poisoning and slow death of adivasis

Tarun Kanti Bose and PT George Sunder Nagar (Jamshedpur) 

Siyaram Besra, 65, was born in Dhodanga village of East Singhbhum district and has lived all his life here. He feels his future is bleak. The uranium mine and the mill are close to his village and the mining and dumping has reached the edge of his hamlet. The relentless sound of blasting echoes in the hills and hillocks and disturbs the serenity — so normal and ritualistic in the older days. The uranium mine waste rocks are being dumped onto the paddy fields and grazing grounds, a few metres from his home where he sits all day. He is frail and sick. Doctors say he has tuberculosis. He says that the medicines have not helped in curing his illness. The doctors don’t show him his medical reports; they shoo him off. Unable to do any work, he sits quietly on the verandah of his hut and stares blankly into space.

The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) has been mining uranium in the eastern state of Jharkhand for the past several decades. Several new mines are opening. The Turamdih Mine and Mill, the Banduhurang Open Cast Uranium Mine and Mohuldih Uranium Mine are the latest additions to those already existing in Jaduguda, Narwapahar and Bhatin.

Jharkhand, which became the 28th state of India on November 15, 2000, is a Schedule V area and is protected by various acts like the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT), Panchayati Raj Extension Act (PESA), Forest Rights Act (FRA) and so on, providing protection to adivasis and their land, resources and collective rights. However, all these provisions have been continuously flouted and twisted to benefit entrenched vested interests and lobbies.

Kumar Chand Mardi, an adivasi leader working among the displaced in Jaduguda and Turamdih, recalled, “Adivasis have been ruined in the debris of development. Their status has been reduced to slavery and servitude. Their struggles have intensified, especially after the formation of Jharkhand.” Mardi says that the uranium mines in the East Singhbhum region will lead to devastation. Radiation might lead to slow death and mass migration. Consequently, the tribals’ land will be usurped. This is a big conspiracy.

Veteran activist Xavier Dias, a member of the Bindrai Institute of Research Study & Action (BIRSA) points out that the debate on nuclear science and the nuclear industry should be taken beyond the issues of energy because there is hardly any discussion in the public domain on larger issues related to nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants and nuclear installations. He reiterated that radiation will lead to mass devastation. “Radiation can happen not only from a nuclear reactor or from uranium mines, but from a variety of other sources. There is much danger in uranium mining, in transporting the ore, processing it, getting it converted into fissile materials that could be readily used either for the power plant or for the production of nuclear weapons,” he said.

The displaced villagers revealed that hundreds of acres of their prime land have been taken away for the Banduhurang, Turamdih and Mohuldih Mines. Said Thakur Soren, a farmer, “22 acres of our family agricultural land has been taken away by UCIL for the Mohuldih mine. A good stretch of prime forest land has been acquired for mining.” Now, he works as a daily wage labourer in a UCIL uranium mine.

Jhameli Murmu, a villager from Byanbill Panchayat, said, “Around 1,050 families in Nandup village in my panchayat have been displaced. When the uranium mining project was approved and land acquisition began, there was no discussion with the local gram panchayat. The state government and UCIL forcibly took away our land. UCIL gave compensation to a few people — Rs 50,000 or Rs 60,000 per acre which is far too low in terms of the market rate. A lot of people are yet to receive compensation.”

Many of the displaced tribals, due to sheer frustration and lack of jobs, have turned to brewing alcohol, selling datun (neem stick used as toothbrush) or doing odd jobs. The situation is grave for the displaced and the landless. There is widespread unemployment, hunger and malnutrition.

According to Dias, the miners working in UCIL’s Turamdih mines and mills, The Banduhurang open cast mines and the Mohuldih underground mines are at great risk because of continuous exposure to high concentrations of a radioactive gas — Radon-222. Radon-222 is a decay product of uranium and a highly carcinogenic alpha emitter. When inhaled it gets deposited in the air passage of lungs, irradiate cells and becomes malignant. Miners are also exposed to Radium-226, another lethal residue, which is an alpha and gamma emitter with a half life of 1,600 years.

There is no official report documenting it, but locals say that many adivasis working in the UCIL mines have died due to lung cancer. “What happened to the workers in the older mines will also happen to miners working in the new mines of Banduhurang, Turamdih and Mohuldih. A deadly fate awaits them all,” said Dias.

 There is no official report documenting it, but locals say that many adivasis working in the UCIL mines have died due to lung cancer.

The uranium tailing pond in Talsa village is close to Bada Talsa village where hundreds of adivasis live. The construction of the pond began in 2005 and was completed in 2010. The nuclear waste slurry from the Turamdih Uranium Mill is dumped into this pond. There are no proper barricades on all sides of the pond.

SR Murmu, who lives on the edge of the pond, is of the opinion that since only one side of the tailing pond is fenced off and all the other sides are kept open, it creates problems for the villagers. Wild animals and even domestic animals get trapped in the poisonous sludge; they die almost immediately. Often, the cattle also stray into the pond. They too get trapped in the poisonous sludge and die.

Villagers and experts say that the Talsa uranium tailing pond is not constructed as per international standards. Leakage and bund burst have occurred several times and the radioactive waste overflows into paddy fields and low-lying areas.

Murmu said that during the construction of the pond UCIL cut down thousands of trees which severely damaged the local ecology. Now, the remaining trees around the tailing pond are also dying due to the high acidity level in the pond. On June 18, 2008, due to heavy rain at Talsa village, the outlet was unplugged by the UCIL management to save the pond as it was on the verge of collapse. Because of high contamination and radiation, several quintals of fish in the downstream Subarnarekha river perished overnight. Snakes, rats and other rodents also died. Paddy fields turned yellowish and the crop and soil
dried up.

Dr Surendra Gadekar, physicist and a Gandhian, said that UCIL never informs people about the dangers of radiation. While conducting a study on the impact of radiation on adivasis in Jadugoda, he found that anyone who is continuously exposed to Radon gas can invariably develop lung cancer.

The radioactive debris from the uranium mines has polluted ground water and the Subarnarekha river which flows through Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha. Water from this river is used for agriculture and for drinking and domestic purposes by people living in these states.

Arjun Samad, president of the Turamdih Vistapit Samiti, said, “Radiation is being ignored. Adivasis are disturbed over issues of livelihood, farming, employment. Whenever we protest, the police harasses the villagers and books them under false cases. Custodial violence is also a big issue.” Recently, several boys of his organization were tortured and abused by the police, because they were protesting against UCIL. “The police abuses the adivasis and calls them junglee,” he said.

The state government, under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), is constructing 80,000 water wells to augment the shortage of drinking water, said Balram, the state’s adviser to the Commissioner of Supreme Court on Right to Food.  The granite stones used for the construction of wells are often obtained from uranium mine waste. This could have dangerous consequences in the days to come. But no one’s listening.  

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2013