Back to Singhbhum

Print edition : January 13, 2006

UCIL is reopening old mines and developing new ones in the Singhbhum region to meet the growing demand.

At the entrance to the reopened mine at Bagjata where development mining is under way at a depth of 60 metres, UCIL foreman Beni Singh supervises the transportation of the ore in trolleys. The plan is to begin uranium production at the mine in two years.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

THE view from the hill at Banduhurang village in Jharkhand's East Singhbhum district is spectacular. The ground below is a carpet of green paddy fields interspersed with ponds, with the Swarnalekha and Kharkai rivers flowing by. Amid the tranquil surroundings, at a distance, loom the chimneys of the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) plant and the Lafarge cement plant, both located in Jamshedpur.

From April 2006 one can return to this picture-postcard view only in memory, for the hill would have disappeared by then. In its place would be an open cast mine for excavating uranium. The Banduhurang hill is actually a twin-hill - one to the west, rising 228 metres above the mean reduced level (MRL), and another, smaller one, to the east.

Right now, the western hill is being "chopped in benches" at a height of six metres with explosives. Holes, six metres deep and 10 cm in diameter, are drilled into the rocks that constitute the hill. Around 20 kg of emulsion explosives are used for each hole. Blasting is a planned operation that takes into account the amount of explosives to be used, depending on the nature of the rock and whether it has a free-face and so on.

Dumpers and tippers are busy hauling away the overburden, as the blasted waste rock is called. The "chopping" will be done until Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), which is executing the open cast mine, meets the uranium ore body 50 metres from the top. The engineers on the job are confident that uranium ore excavation will begin in April 2006.

On top of the Banduhurang hill, UCIL engineers measure the depth of a pit to insert explosives. The hill is being flattened in "steps" and converted into an open-cast mine.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

What is novel about the project is that UCIL will literally be moving the hill. Ramendra Gupta, Chairman and Managing Director, UCIL, said: "We didn't want the hill to disappear. So, after blasting, we are piling up the debris in a manner that the hill remains, but a little displaced." He is a votary of "painless development". Gupta's concern is not just about the topography of the region. He is aware that mines do not last for more than 50 years, and that tribal people displaced by mining projects require more than just compensation for lost land and employment.

UCIL was founded in 1967 with its headquarters at Jaduguda in East Singhbhum district in the then Bihar State. Its mandate was to set up mines to excavate uranium and establish mills to process it into yellowcake. Jaduguda, 24 km from Jamshedpur, is where UCIL set up its first underground mine in 1967, and subsequently a mill. Indeed, Jaduguda, which is surrounded by the Chhotanagpur hills and is home to the Santhal, Munda and Ho tribes, is at the heart of UCIL's operations.

With a shortage of natural uranium affecting the capacity factors of India's Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), UCIL is scouting hard for uranium in East Singhbhum district. It has decided to augment uranium production in the 10th and 11th Five-year Plan periods with East Singhbhum district as the major production centre. "We are in expansion mode. No reactor will be idle [for want of natural uranium fuel]. We are developing new mines and increasing our production capacity," said Gupta. "The year 2005 is crucial for us because several major time-bound projects such as the Turamdih mill and the Banduhurang mine are to reach several milestones before the commencement of production in 2006," he added.

According to Dr. P. Krishnamurthy, former Regional Director, Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD), Eastern region, Jamshedpur, and currently Consultant, Training and Development, UCIL, mineralisation in the Singhbhum region extended in an arc 160 km long and 2 km wide from east to west. Situated in this arc, called the Singhbhum thrust belt or Singhbhum copper belt, is Jaduguda, Bagjata, Narawaphar, Turamdih, Bhatin and Banduhurang, where there are mines, and Mohuldih, where a mine has been proposed.

The exploration in the Singhbhum region constitutes a major part of the campaign to identify indigenous uranium resources, says Krishnamurthy in a pre-print of his paper to be presented at the conference to held on January 22 in Jamshedpur to celebrate the centenary of the Mining and Metallurgical Geology Institute, Kolkata.

The search for uranium began in 1950-51 in the Singhbhum belt with a team of 17 geologists and one physicist. The subsequent efforts of proving about 11 uranium deposits by drilling and exploratory mining during the 1950s and 1960s "epitomise the zeal and dedication towards making the country self-sufficient in uranium", says Krishnamurthy. What was significant was "the high order of zeal and motivation showed by the pioneers to serve free India and the opportunity to prospect for a strategic element like uranium".

Ramendra Gupta, Chairman and Managing Director, UCIL.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

It is not surprising, therefore, that UCIL has returned to East Singhbhum when it is facing a shortage of uranium. It is not only reopening the mines at Turamdih and Bagjata, which were closed in the early 1990s because the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was strapped for cash, but deepening its existing mine at Jaduguda. Uranium from the open-cast mine that is being excavated from the western hill at Banduhurang may last for 15 years; production will begin in April 2006. When the excavation is completed, the hollow in the hill will be converted into a pond. Then the eastern hill will be mined.

IT is a bone-rattling 32-km ride from Jaduguda to Bagjata, which took more than an hour. On the way were abandoned copper mines at Mosabani, which was once a prosperous copper mining centre. One could see mounds of copper slag, derelict buildings that used to house time offices of the mines, sprawling but deserted residential quarters and shopping centres. Hindustan Copper Corporation shut down its copper mines at Mosabani, Surda and Rakha after poor grade of the metal and low market price made them unprofitable. Across the Shankh Nala river, the bridge on which was built by UCIL, is Bagjata. A hundred metres away is the tribal village of Phuljari with tastefully painted houses and huts with decorative patterns on the walls. The Dalma hills rise in the background and all round there is dense, green vegetation.

In 1985, exploratory mining began at Bagjata. UCIL built two inclines, as the entry into the mine is called, up to a depth of 100 metres and 160 metres apart. However, the mine was closed in the early 1990s because the Union government cut off funds to the DAE.

At the Narwapahar mine, which boasts state-of-the-art technology, a rock-bolting machine.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

With more indigenous reactors coming up and the demand for natural uranium shooting up, UCIL reopened the Bagjata mine on January 23, 2004. Besides re-opening the two inclines, it built a new shaft, giving the mine a third opening. When Frontline visited the mine, work was going on at one of the inclines, through which vehicles can go down into the bowels of the mine to transport the excavated uranium ore. Development mining is under way at a depth of 60 metres, where the two inclines meet, and the plan is to begin uranium production in two years.

The uranium extracted from Bagjata will be transported to the processing mill at Jaduguda on trucks plying on a new road that will link the two centres. Thus, the quiet of the tribal villages on the way will not be disturbed, claim UCIL officials.

AT Narwapahar is arguably the most modern mine in India today. Commissioned in 1995, it produces about 1,500 tonnes of ore a day. Jumbo drilling machines and low-profile trucks and other vehicles go down hundreds of metres to transport mining personnel and ore. A signalling system controls the traffic of trucks underground. The mine has two entries: a vertical shaft and a seven degree incline for vehicles. In fact, it is the only underground mine in India where a ramp and a shaft are in use to go down the mine.

Before 2001, the ore extracted from Narwapahar was taken to the ore yard in dumpers and from there to the Jaduguda mill. In 2001, a skip system was introduced, whereby the ore is simply hoisted to the surface. The same year, an underground crushing system was introduced. Ore boulders began to be crushed at a depth of 295 metres to pieces six inches (15 cm) across and dumped through an opening to a depth of 315 metres, where they are loaded by a conveyor to the skip, and from there hoisted to the surface. This process has increased productivity by 30 per cent, mine officials said.

The Turamdih mine was reopened in November 2002 in the presence of Dr. Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, and Secretary, DAE. Since then, 8,000 metres of mines have been developed in various directions. Production of ore is under way and it will reach full capacity in two years. Adjacent to the mine, a mill is under construction. A conveyor is being assembled and the mill is expected to start processing ore produced at Turamdih and Banduhurang from February 2006.

According to Gupta, the Banduhurang and Bagjata mine projects will cost Rs.95 crores and Rs.92 crores respectively. About Rs.343 crores will be spent on erecting the Turamdih mill. If a mine at Mohuldih were to be realised, it would cost Rs.90 crores. He said the Government of India had allotted Rs.1,000 crores for the Tenth Plan period (2002-07) for opening new mines and mills and expanding old ones. Depending on the progress, more money would be allotted if needed, he said.

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