High-grade energy, low-grade safety

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Uranium mines in Jharkhand are being run in total disregard of the health of workers and local communities, reports G Vishnu

Hazardous job A labourer without protective clothing climbs a truck laden with uranium ore in Jaduguda
Hazardous job A labourer without protective clothing climbs a truck laden with uranium ore in Jaduguda

DYAN LOHAR was born in Jaduguda, Jharkhand, with one eye, no nose and a mouth too small for his own fingers. He has nine fingers and seven toes. Now 15, he lies on a cot as his mother feeds him rice porridge in small scoops. The past 15 years of 43-year-old Kunti’s life have been devoted to a son whose worldview is expressed only by grunts and foot taps. She is angry, bitter and suffers from depression. “There are so many kids like Dyan in the nearby villages. Go disturb them,” she grumbles. We did, and found 18-year-old Mithun Patrao, who fares slightly better than Dyan — he can utter six words.

It was in 1967 that Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL), a public-sector undertaking, opened its first mine in Jaduguda. This region in East Singhbhum district has rich deposits of copper, uranium and iron ore. For the past 20 years, activist group Jharkhand Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR) has been at the forefront of the struggle against the “radiation emitted from the uranium mining and the doom it has unleashed” in the region. “The British mined copper in this region, first disturbing the radiation-emitting minerals. UCIL just continued the legacy in a much more devastating manner,” says 47-year-old Ghanshyam Biruli, secretary, JOAR.

Uranium from the mines at Jaduguda and Bhatin (set up in 1985), is used for electricity generation and “other strategic purposes”. The ore is compacted into yellowcake, which is transported in sealed containers to Hyderabad for further processing. In the past 15 years, UCIL has opened five new uranium mines and two processing mills in the villages of Narwapahar, Bagjata, Banduhurang, Turamdih and Mohuldih, taking the total number of mines to seven.

AT BANDUHURANG, there are no prohibitory signs, no warnings about radiation, no barbed wire and no demarcation of territory. At mid-day, a time when blasts are carried out, several workers could be spotted in casual clothing, with no helmets, not even a breathing mask. This includes the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel who were guarding the site. CISF’S GB Rao, who apprehended the TEHELKA team for entering the “prohibited area”, had hardly any clue about the safety measures that he was supposed to take, even for his own good. Contrary to UCIL claims, the open-cast mine is not being managed any better than an illegal coal mine in private hands. The waste lies scattered in mounds of radioactive rocks and dust, sometimes inside the villages surrounding the mine.

The radioactive waste water released from the mines simply joins a stream flowing through the villages where children were found bathing and women washing clothes. One can see trucks carrying uranium ore loosely covered with plastic sheets, radioactive dust flying in the wind.

Moreover, it is easy for the public to access a ‘tailing pond’ (dumping ground for liquid radioactive waste) of a major mine. These wastes emit radon, a gas that contains alpha particles. If inhaled, these particles radiate inside our bodies, especially lungs, invading the cells and causing cancer. Though radon has a radioactive life cycle of just three days, the slurry flow into the pond is constant, making it a perpetual health hazard. The local community goes about its daily routine alarmingly close by — women can be seen collecting firewood from the vicinity and children play hide-and-seek and football.

If this is how the public sector organises itself, there is much trouble ahead. In the past three years, UCIL has been eyeing uranium deposits in Nalgonda, Lambapur and Tummalapalle in Andhra Pradesh, Gogi in northern Karnataka, Kyelleng-Pyndengsohiong, and Mawthabah in Meghalaya. Almost all these projects are lined up for clearance within a year. Except for Meghalaya, where several local groups, including politicians, have resisted opening up of the mines in the west Khasi hills, protests by locals in other places have been dimmer.

A health survey found that 9.5 percent of newborns die each year due to extreme physical deformities. Primary sterility is alarmingly common

UCIL officials are dismissive about the allegations of health hazards due to radiation. In the words of UCIL chairman Ramendra Gupta, “The uranium we produce is of low grade and our mines have a density of only about 0.4 percent of uranium for all the drilling we do.”

When the productivity is so incredibly low, the cost-benefit ratio so drastically skewed, why mine at all, one might ask. “What is the alternative?” retorts Gupta. “How are you going to tackle India’s growing needs for electricity? For all those who scream foul on environmental sustainability of other forms of power generation like thermal or hydel projects, nuclear energy should have been the obvious choice. But the media, to a great extent, has ignored these questions while bashing UCIL incessantly — without any basis — by using the same pictures of deformed children that were taken 20 years ago.”

Cesspool Waste from the UCIL mines flow into a pond that lies dangerously close to the villages in the region
Cesspool Waste from the UCIL mines flow into a pond that lies dangerously close to the villages in the region

It would be cruel to repeat these casual arguments in the villages. Particularly in the home of Macho Kui, who died 15 days prior to TEHELKA’s visit to her village. She succumbed, supposedly to tuberculosis (TB), after suffering for four years. The same disease has affected Somra Maji of Chatijkocha village, weakened beyond identification from a picture taken six years back, lying on a cot outside his hut. Macho and Somra’s houses lie in dangerous proximity to a tailing pond.

Sukramani Maji (name changed), 38, has been down with TB for the past three years — two men in her house work in the UCIL mines. “We have seen too many deaths due to cancer and tuberculosis, too many deformed children, too many miscarriages among women. Too much sorrow. Our lives are governed by radiation. There is no escape from it,” says Ghanshyam Biruli, with the paleness of someone who has been repeating the same lines for a lifetime

Over the past decade, nuclear physicist MV Ramana of Princeton University, Professor Hiraoki Koide of Kyoto University and Dr Sanghamitra Gadekar of the anti-nuclear journal, Anumukti — who have studied the health conditions of locals in Jaduguda — have all voiced grave concerns about radiation-related hazards on several platforms.

Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD), an affiliate of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize recipient International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, conducted a health survey in 2007 that looked at 2,118 families within 2.5 km of the mines. It found that 9.5 percent of newborns die each year due to extreme physical deformities. Primary sterility is alarmingly common, with 9.6 percent of women not able to conceive even after three years of marriage.

For all the assertions of JOAR and others on the evils of radiation, UCIL officials have been doggedly denying that there is radiation-related disease in the area. Gupta claims, “Cancer in this region is not beyond the national average. Illnesses are largely due to malnutrition and an unhealthy lifestyle.”

The director of UCIL’s technical department Diwakar Acharya offers a similar defence. “They are all retired employees. Mining methods have changed a lot in the past two decades. Earlier, the workers’ health was in grave danger due to the lack of protective clothing and modern machinery. The technology we have today keeps them, as well as the local population, completely out of harm’s way,” he says.

It is perplexing to see one of the largest public corporations in India in such a state of psychological denial. “If you are a public corporation you simply cannot accept the responsibility,” explains Dr Shakeel Rehman of IDPD. “There is a rationale in their dismissal of all the independent reports that expose their deeds. However, if they had such confidence in their stance about no radiation-related hazards, then why have they not called for an independent inquiry? People do not suffer from TB for four-five years — it can be cured within months. If they are a responsible corporation, they ought to take more burdens and call for an independent epidemiological study on the health of the local population,” he says.

UCIL seems to believe that national interest overrides the baggage of liabilities the pursuit of nuclear ambitions carries. Is it in our national interest to stand by silently as this scenario plays out in other uranium mines in the next year?


OVERZEALOUS STATE CLAMPED DOWN ON US

BEFORE LEAVING Delhi, my appointment had been fixed for 4 September with Ramendra Gupta, chairman of Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL), at the corporate office in Jaduguda. A day before, en route, 30 km from Jamshedpur, we were surveying the mines from a vantage point when CISF personnel told me, the freelance photographer and our local guide that we were trespassing on UCIL territory. They took us in their jeep to their campus.

We were detained for hours, waiting for a ‘routine identification procedure’ by UCIL officials, who never turned up. Four hours later, we were handed over to the police. My press card did not satisfy them. Charges of trespassing, photography and ‘disobedience to a public servant’ were slapped on us. Our equipment was seized. The Sundernagar Police Station in-charge persistently asked us if we were American agents. He wanted to see our cell phones so that he could verify whether we had received calls from the US.

Meanwhile, my editors had appealed to all the relevant authorities, including the Jharkhand DIG, Jamshedpur SP and the CISF DIG. They contacted several ministers, including officials in the home ministry.

Thanks to these interventions, we were bailed out after nearly 12 hours. In this period, we were only given biscuits by the CISF men, who joked that they were being kind for the sake of upholding “human rights”.

As we shuttled between the police station and the district court in Jamshedpur for a week to get our equipment back, we got a glimpse into the kind of helplessness local villagers experience throughout their lives. If a journalist working for a national newsmagazine could be arrested and booked for visiting villages that have an overview of the mine, who would listen to the villagers?

Later, when I interviewed the UCIL officials, one of them asked, “Why couldn’t you just ask us to show you around? Why were you so curious?”

So, what should have we done? Behave like an embedded journalist in Iraq?

Photos: Vinay Upadhyay

 

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