Uranium Corporation of India Limited: Wasting Away Tribal Lands
“I have had three miscarriages and lost five children within a week of their births,” says Hira Hansda, a miner’s wife. “Even after 20 years of marriage we have no children today.” Now in her late forties, she sits outside her mud hut in Jadugoda Township, site of one of the oldest uranium mines in India.
The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) operates that mine, part of a cluster of four underground and one open cast mines and two processing plants, in East Singbhum district in the Eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. The deepest plunges almost one kilometer into the earth.
Incorporated as a public sector enterprise under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in 1967, UCIL has sole responsibility for mining and processing all of India's uranium. And since the strength of the Jadugoda region's uraninite ore is extremely low, it takes many tons of earth as well as complex metallurgical processes to yield even a small amount of useable uranium ore—along with tons of radioactive waste, disposed of in unlined tailing dams.
UCIL processes the ore into yellowcake and sends it to the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad, where it is officially designated for use in nuclear reactors. But it is an open secret that some of the nuclear material becomes the key ingredient in India's nuclear arsenal. (India is one of only three states—along with Israel and Pakistan—that are not signatories to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2003.)
Radiation and health experts across the world charge that toxic materials and radioactivity released by the mining and processing operations are causing widespread infertility, birth defects and cancers. A 2008 health survey by the Indian chapter of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), found that “primary sterility was found to be more common in the people residing near uranium mining operations area.”
Jadugoda residents Kaderam Tudu and his wife, Munia, considered themselves fortunate when their infant was born alive, until, “I found that my baby son did not have his right ear and instead in its place was a blob of flesh,” says Tudu, a day worker in his late thirties. Their son, Shyam Tudu, now eight, has a severe hearing impairment.
Even children who appear healthy are impacted. "The youths from our villages have become victims of social ostracism," says Parvati Manjhi, and cannot find spouses. "And a number of our girls have been abandoned by their husbands, when they failed to give birth,” Now middle-aged, Parvati and her husband, Dhuwa Manjhi, who used to work for UCIL, are childless.
Harrowing tales fill the region around the mines, and add irony to the area's name, Jharkhand, which in the local tribal language means “forest endowed with nature’s bounties.” If the lush land was the indigenous population's boon for centuries, its rich mineral reserves have become their bane. Six decades of industrialization has depleted the forest cover, degraded the environment, displaced tribal peoples—who along with Dalit ("untouchables") form an oppressed underclass—and devastated a way of life deeply interwoven with nature.
Despite India's economic boom and proximity to one of the country's richest mineral reserves, the villages in Jharkhand are now among the poorest in the country, according to the Center For Science & Environment’s (New Delhi) 2008 report “Rich Lands Poor People.”
Uranium Corporation of India Limited in Jharkhand
UCIL’s underground mines in Jadugoda, Bhatin, Turamdhih, Narwapahar, and its open cast mine at Banduhurang extract 1,000 tons per day (TPD) of uranium ore. Two underground mines in the pipeline at Baghjata and Mahuldih will boost that amount. The ore is processed at the Jadugoda and Turamdih mills with a combined capacity of 5,000 TDP. The company earned $64 million in 2007-08, and made a $3 million profit.
The 20-year lease for UCIL's mines was up in 2007, and a new application is being processed. Under it, the company wants to add 6.37 hectares to tailing dam capacity and expand production, according to UCIL Chairman and Managing Director Ramendra Gupta. This move requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Management Plan (EMP) drawn up by the Central Institute of Mining & Fuel Research (CIMFR), along with a public hearing.
Addressing the affected community at the May public hearing in Jadugoda, the company represented the local plans as “a marginal expansion.” But the UCIL website promises “a quantum leap in UCIL’s activities” that includes plans to "deepen the existing mines, expand its processing facilities,” and “not only opening new mines, but also the development of the community around its operations.”
While the company has created local schools and provides jobs and social services, villagers who attended the hearing argued that these provisions do not compensate for the health effects and destruction of their way of life.
“Why are we being made to pay such a heavy price, for so many decades”? Asks Hira Hansda, speaking of her three miscarriages and birth to five infants that quickly died. Her husband Sonaram worked at the tailing dam as a casual employee between 1984-87, and like many villagers, he links the deterioration in local health conditions to the arrival of the uranium mines. The last three surveys conducted in the area found increased radiation levels.
Heavy Security at UCIL’s Public Hearing Keeps Villagers Out
The public hearing on UCIL's new application took place at the heavily fortified camp of the Central India Security Force (CISF) within the UCIL colony at Jadugoda. Conducted by the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board, the proceedings were marked by restrictions on personal liberties under sections of a law applying to situations with the potential to cause civil unrest.
Leaving little room for the public or protesters, the hall was packed with hundreds of UCIL workers and other company beneficiaries who held placards reading: “When compared to hunger, pollution is a small issue," and "Save UCIL.”
Those who had lost their lands and health to the mines were physically barred from the tent. Outside the proceedings, protesters shouted: “Do not destroy our land," “No uranium, no uranium waste, no weapons, care for the future." Many indigenous villagers waved the banner of the Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation (JOAR), winner of the Germany-based Nuclear Free Future Award for its long crusade against the hazards of uranium mining in Jadugoda. The protesters denounced the hearing as "a farce" and demanded that it be immediately stopped.
Villager and JOAR president, Ghanashyam Biruli, issued the demands: no new uranium mines, bring the existing mine under international safety guidelines, return unused tribal land, provide livelihood and rehabilitation to displaced people, clean up the contamination, commission an independent study of environmental contamination and health effects, and monitor water bodies to ensure that the radionuclides do not seep into the aquifer that is the lifeline of more than 100,000 people. The activists also argued that since the country can buy uranium on the international market, there is no compelling need to expand UCIL's capacity.
The real compelling need, they asserted, was protecting health and the environment. The 2008 health survey by the Indian chapter of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) provided clear evidence, finding that:
* Couples living near the mines were "1.58 times more vulnerable to primary sterility" with 9.6 percent of couples in study villages unable to conceive after three years of marriage, compared with 6.27 percent in a reference (control) group.
* Birth defects followed a similar pattern with 1.84 times higher incidence: “[B]abies from mothers, who lived near uranium mining operation area, suffered a significant increase in congenital deformities,” according to the report. While 4.49 percent of mothers living in the study villages reported bearing children with congenital deformities, only 2.49 percent of mothers in reference villages fell under this category." The national rate for people with disabilities (including congenital deformities) is 3 percent, according to official government statistics.
* Deformed babies near the mining operations are almost 6 times more likely to die, with 9.25 percent mothers in the study villages reporting congenital deformities as the cause of death of their children. In the reference village, mothers reported 1.70 percent of babies died of deformities.
* Cancer deaths were also higher: 2.87 percent of households in study villages attributed the cause of death to be cancer, compared to 1.89 percent in the reference village.
These factors contributed to a lowered life expectancy. In the study villages 68.33 percent of the population died before reaching the state's average life expectancy: 62 years old.
UCIL Denies Contamination
Despite such alarming reports, radiation data are not made public because they fall under the purview of the Atomic Energy Act of 1962. UCIL / DAE (Department of Atomic Energy) also cites security concerns for refusing to release data on health of the workers. But Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda, a 1999 award-winning film by Shri Prakash documented that, despite a law mandating regular monitoring, in the last five- to ten-year period few workers underwent blood and urine tests to assess the impact of radiation.
Independent scientists have confirmed the danger. Professor Hiroaki Koide, from the Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University, Japan, sampled soil and air in the surrounding villages and documented that “The circumference of tailing ponds is impacted with uranium radiation. The strength of the radiation is of 10 to 100 times high in comparison to places without contamination. ...There are places where uranium concentration is high in the road or the riverside, and it is thought that tailings are used for construction material,” including on villagers' houses." Tailings are production waste material that, according to critics are unsafely stored, dumped, and used for landfills, roads and construction.
UCIL Technical Director D Acharya denied that the company was responsible for radiological contamination. “UCIL’s safety and pollution control measures are at par with the international standards, comparable at any point of time,” he said. The company is dealing with naturally occurring materials, he noted, the very low grade ore extracted is a minimal environmental hazard, and the company is not enriching the ore in Jadugoda.
But tacitly acknowledging the risks, UCIL head, Gupta, noted in the 2008 Annual Report that "External gamma radiation, Radon concentration, suspended particulate matters, airborne long lived Alpha activity and concentration of radio nuclides- uranium and Radium in surface and ground water, in soil and food items etc are monitored regularly."
Although he presented no evidence, UCIL Technical Director Acharya said that allegations of health problems are canards spread by anti-uranium lobbies, and that the physical fitness of the employees can be gauged the UCIL football team's success in winning the DAE tournaments for the past five years.
“From time to time we have also conducted structured health surveys and examinations, by independent sources," said Acharya. "One was done by the erstwhile Bihar Assembly, about ten years ago, but the findings are absolutely normal.” (The area was part of Bihar at the time.) "The effects of radiation are being constantly monitored by independent watchdogs, and there are health physics experts who are always with us, for round-the clock-vigil of the situation. Hence, there is really no cause of concern,” he added.
That is not the experience of many villagers, who link serious health problems to the mines. Like many of the women in the surrounding areas, Hansda's pregnancies were a time of terror. “It fills within us fear and apprehensions of the possible ordeal that may be in store. Who knows what would be the fate of the baby,” she said.