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Dossier People’s Struggles in India

Return of the Nuclear Shadow: Uranium Mining and the Tribal Community’s Struggle for Survival in Jaduguda, India

, by Intercultural Resources , GEORGE PT

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan in March 2011, countries across the world are rethinking the safety aspects of their nuclear power plants and re-examining their reliance on nuclear power. India, on the other hand, is surging ahead with a grand expansion plan for its nuclear power plants.

This article is an attempt to unravel some of the controversies surrounding uranium mining in India. It will also examine how a state-owned company, which is solely responsible for uranium mining in India, has been ignoring the rights of the tribal people who live near the uranium mines in Jaduguda in the state of Jharkhand, who suffer the trauma of radiation and its dangerous aftereffects.

Introduction

India’s nuclear program, which began modestly after independence in 1947, has now metamorphosed into a giant business venture, comprising dozens of functional nuclear power plants, massive mining operations and the establishment of several allied industries. Although there is a tremendous push by the Indian state to expand and multiply its nuclear power plants, the viability, sustainability and safety of these projects are seldom discussed in the public domain. It is thus worth exploring the controversy surrounding the nuclear policies of the Indian state, especially the issues surrounding uranium mining and its impacts on the marginalized tribal communities.

Currently, India has 20 nuclear reactors operational in six different nuclear power plants, generating approximately 3% of the total energy needs of the country. Expansion plans are in full swing for the construction of several others. With the expansion of nuclear-powered energy production, the need for procuring uranium (the basic raw material for nuclear fission) became inevitable. The energy-intensive development practices pursued by the Indian state have resulted in an ever-increasing challenge to meet the energy requirements of the country. In order to satisfy this perennial hunger for energy, constant upgrading of energy production and distribution is required. As such, nuclear energy is promoted as one of the most inexpensive and viable options for feeding the energy-hungry nation. Thus, the production of cheap energy with the help of indigenously mined and processed uranium became a major concern for India.

Uranium Mining in Jaduguda

In 1951, the search for uranium began in India, and the exploration led to Jaduguda (also spelled Jadugoda), a rural area in a small township adjoining the industrial city of Jamshedpur, then in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. Jaduguda is now situated in Jharkhand (a state formed in 2000). It is home to several indigenous communities such as the Santhal, Munda, Oraon, Ho, Bhumiz and Kharia and several others. Jharkhand is one of the richest areas in the whole country in terms of biodiversity and natural resources. It has pristine forests and river systems, as well as one of the biggest reserves of coal, iron ore, mica, bauxite and limestone. Considerable reserves of copper, chromite, asbestos, china clay, manganese, dolomite, and uranium are also found here. Jaduguda, once a sleepy little village, rose to fame when uranium was discovered there. In 1957, uranium mining started in Jaduguda. To undertake the sole responsibility of mining and milling uranium, the government of India set up a separate company. Thus in 1967, the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) was born, and its first assignment was to undertake mining and milling of uranium in Jaduguda, which became the heart of India’s ambitious nuclear program. Later, uranium was also discovered in adjoining areas. This led to an expansion of the UCIL’s mining and milling activity, like an octopus slowly spreading its deadly tentacles.

Uranium Extraction and Waste Disposal

When uranium, a highly radioactive element, is mined from the deep crust of the earth and extracted from other rocks, its protective shield is lost, and it starts contaminating the atmosphere with its harmful radioactive rays. The extraction of uranium from the mined rock involves complex chemical processes. After extraction of uranium, the liquid waste in the form of slurry is then let into a tailing pond where it is allowed settle down in the open air. Various by-products and radioactive elements present in the slurry radiate harmful rays that destroy the environment and water bodies and affect living beings in and around the mines. Anyone coming into contact with the tailing ponds can be seriously affected by radiation. The strong gamma rays generated from the tailing ponds can not only penetrate through a human body, but even a 30-centimeter thick concrete wall.

Apart from the gamma rays, several gases are also generated from the tailing ponds. Exposure to gases such as radon can cause irreparable damage to living organisms. Once exposed to gamma radiation, the impact continues for a long time, exposing the affected organisms to other threats and causing irreparable damages to several internal organs. Further, pregnant women exposed to high levels of gamma radiation run high risks of birth defects and – in extreme cases – termination of pregnancy.

Impacts of Radiation on Tribal Communities

A population of around 35,000 people living within a 5-kilometer radius of the mines are adversely affected by radiation from the tailing ponds. Many villagers lost land and jobs when they were displaced by the mining operations, and many now work in the uranium mines as daily wage labourers. They often do not get proper protective gear to handle radioactive materials and work with bare hands, exposing themselves to heavy doses of radiation. UCIL, the company responsible for the health of its workers, on the other hand, always refutes any allegations of violations of labour laws and human rights. The company is outright defensive about its protective measures and refuses to acknowledge the problems faced by the labourers.

After a few decades of mining in the region, people living around the mines and the tailing ponds are finally falling prey to radiation. Several cases of cancer and skin diseases have been reported from people living near the tailing ponds. There have also been an increased number of defective births in the area, as well as more cases of tuberculosis and lung and abdomen cancer. A large number of women have experienced disruption of menstrual cycle or loss of fertility. Besides this, several mine workers have died due to various forms of radiation.

According to Ghanshyam Birouli, an anti-uranium mining activist based in Jaduguda, the symptoms of radiation are more prominent in the generation born after uranium mining started in Jaduguda. Ghanshyam’s own father, who was a labourer in the mines, died of lung cancer. The carelessness of UCIL in disposing the mining waste materials coupled with lack of knowledge about radiation among the tribals have exposed them to high levels of radiation.

In the beginning, people believed that the increasing number of diseases were due to the spell of evil spirits and the angry gods and goddesses. To appease the angry gods and the evil spirits, they performed various rituals but without much results. Doctors Sanghamitra and Surendra Ghadekar, both active members of Anumukti (an anti-nuclear activist group), did a comprehensive health survey of people living near the uranium mines and the tailing ponds. As per their reports, the areas around Jaduguda mines show a very high incidence of congenital deformities.

Resistance and Campaigning Organisations

The anti-people policies of UCIL surrounding rehabilitation, medical treatment of the affected people and livelihood issues have led to widespread anger and protests against UCIL. The state, along with the rest of the pro-nuclear lobby, has consistently tried to marginalize the affected communities and has left the tribal communities in Jaduguda to fend for themselves. However, this has not dampened the dissenting spirit of the communities. There has been a widespread reaction to the practices of the company and the policies of the state. Along with the affected people, several organizations and anti-nuclear organizations and campaigners have been in supportive of the people of Jaduguda and have been fighting ever since.

The first ever protest against UCIL actions in Jaduguda was way back in 1979, when the Indian Federation of Trade Union (IFTU), a labour wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI), supported the mine workers in their protest for radiation allowance. Soon other organizations joined the people of Jaduguda in their struggles against uranium radiation. A trade union organization called Singhbhumi Ekta (Singhbhum’s Unity; Singbhum is a district in Jharkhand) and the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) collaborated to protect the rights of workers of UCIL.

Later, several organizations were formed to resist the expansion of mining activity in the region. Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR) was formed to resist nuclear development in the region, to prohibit further expansion of mines, to educate the local tribals about the dangers of radioactivity and to keep Jaduguda from becoming India’s nuclear waste dump. The Jharkhand Organisation for Struggling Humans (JOSH) is another organization fighting against land acquisition for uranium mining in Bandhuhurang, a new UCIL site adjacent to Jaduguda. These organizations along with several others have been on the forefront in Jaduguda, fighting on several issues related to radiation, livelihood, land alienation, and contamination of farmlands, rivers and other water bodies.

Public Hearings

With the objective of creating more space for people’s participation in development projects and environmental clearances, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) issued a notification in 1997, making public hearings mandatory for environmental clearances. For its expansion plans in Jaduguda, UCIL needed environmental clearances. For this, public hearings were mandatory. In Jaduguda, UCIL has not properly addressed many issues, including those related to land acquisition, rehabilitation, health issues of radiation-affected people, waste material handling, water pollution and contamination of agricultural land. Most of the public hearings conducted by UCIL have been manipulated by the company itself, with heavy police presence and hired goons preventing affected communities and activist organizations from attending various hearings. Several such hearings were conducted without the full mandate of the affected people.

On the other hand, people in Jaduguda have been demanding no expansion of uranium mines and have been fighting for decades to bring the existing mine under international safety guidelines. Besides this they have also demanded that land acquired by UCIL but still unused be returned to the villagers. Neither these issues nor the other environmental and health demands of the villagers have been properly dealt with by the company. Thus the clearances granted to it are biased and not based on the people’s verdict.

Conclusion

During the last 60 years of its tryst in Jaduguda, UCIL has built a legacy of contamination, environmental destruction and health hazards for thousands of people living around the mines and the tailings. Even as the company is constantly upgrading and expanding its operations, its policies are continuously being challenged by organizations and concerned citizens. The company should respond to the demands of the people and protect them from harmful radiation, comply with international safety standards in handling radioactive materials, cleanup the contaminated areas, respect the reports of independent health surveys done in the area, and provide proper medical care to the radiation-affected victims. The company also should conduct public hearings as per the law of the land and should not resort to manipulative tactics and violence while dealing with the affected people.

UCIL is no different from other mining companies in this country when it comes to reckless mining and alienation of tribal communities. While their ancestral land and resources are being looted by greedy corporations with the full support of a violent state, the tribals in Jaduguda and elsewhere remain a witness to a saga of destruction that has been going on for the last several decades. Socially and economically disadvantaged, many live in abject poverty and perennial hunger.

While the tribals in Jaduguda are nailed to the cross of trauma, radiation-induced pain, hunger and death, they continue to agitate for the resurrection of a tomorrow where they will be able to live in a socially just society with peace and dignity.

This article is available in French: Le retour de la menace nucléaire à Jadugoda en Inde

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