A nuclear divide

Print edition : January 13, 2006

Even as there is loud opposition to uranium mining in Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya, in both States there is a substantial section of people who support UCIL's plans.

At Lambapur. In the background is the hillock where UCIL plans to set up an open-cast mine.-H. SATISH

NINETY kilometres from Hyderabad, on the highway to Nagarjuna Sagar, a hillock rises on the right. From its summit as one scans the barren land beyond, a patch of eucalyptus plantation, which is meant to be part of a "social forestry" scheme, comes into view. Suddenly, from nowhere emerge several men and they want to know why we are there. They are Lambadas from Seripalle village a couple of kilometres away and have been on the alert ever since Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) made known its plan to set up a uranium processing mill near the village.

Today, Seripalle, in Nalgonda district, is on the boil. It has put the Andhra Government in a quandary - whether or not it should grant a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to UCIL's application to set up the processing plant. UCIL has also applied to the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) to build an open-cast mine at Lambapur and two underground mines at Peddagattu. Lambapur and Peddagattu are also in Nalgonda district.

As a corollary to the proposed mill, tailing ponds will come up 2 km away from the mill. These are engineered structures with bunds/embankments made of rock and earth and are more than 100 metres broad at the base and about 25 metres high. Tailings are radioactive waste that is left behind when uranium is processed into yellowcake. As a kind of radiation, is emitted from the tailings, the waste is disposed of carefully. The tailings are neutralised by lime and carried from the mill to the ponds. Clean water emerges from the decantation wells and is carried away for further treatment. The solid tailings are retained in the pond (Frontline, September 10, 1999).

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) opposed to the mines and the mill have done their homework well at Lambapur, Peddagattu and Seripalle. The name of one such NGO, Jana Vignana Vedika, is written in big letters on the wall of one of the houses just ahead of Seripalle village. There is also a slogan: "We don't want uranium, please save our lives."

The majority of the population at Seripalle belongs to the Lambada tribe. As the Frontline team got down from the vehicle, the residents gathered and enquired about the purpose of our visit.

Ramawath Haniya, a Lambada, does not care for the jobs that UCIL will create. "We don't want anything. The water in the tailing pond will be disastrous. Our sheep and animals will die if they touch that water. The groundwater will be contaminated," he said. Mekala Veerayya is worried that men would lose their virility owing to radiation from the mill and the pond. Others fear that they will become physically handicapped.

But in nearby villages such as Jethiya Thanda, Tided and Devarakonda the mood is in favour of the mine and mill. In December 2004, UCIL took a group of people from these villages to Jaduguda in Jharkhand so that they could see for themselves the mine and the mill there. "Everything was fine" at Chatikocha village, said Ramawath Dharam Singh. Chatikocha village is situated hardly a few hundred metres away from the tailing pond at Jaduguda. "We saw ducks near the tailing pond," he said. "People here are afraid that the water from the tailing pond is poisonous. But what we saw at Jaduguda is quite the contrary," he said.

In Shillong, too, the fear of radiation from the tailing pond dominates the minds of activists and NGOs. In Meghalaya, besides radiation, influx of outsiders and land alienation are also cited as the reasons by the Khasi Students' Union (KSU) to oppose UCIL's plans to set up uranium mines and a mill at Kylleng-Pyndengsohiong, near Mawthabha in West Khasi Hills district. The KSU was set up in 1978 to protect, safeguard and uplift the Khasi (tribal) society. According to its president, Samuel Jyrwa, the influx of outsiders "will affect our identity and the demographic structure of that particular area". Jyrwa also claimed that he had seen people's health being affected by the radiation from the tailing pond.

Jyrwa alleged that in 1992, the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD) excavated 650 tonnes of uranium ore and set up a laboratory to determine the quality of the yellowcake processed from the uranium. However, pressure from the local people led to the scrapping of the project in 1995. But "the AMD had carelessly left the uranium ore exposed there", he alleged. When the KSU demanded that the AMD do something about it, it put all the excavated ore in two pits and covered them with concrete. However, after two years, people were afflicted with various diseases, Jyrwa alleged. People had symptoms similar to that of tuberculosis - but in these cases they were not getting cured.

Jyrwa claimed that Spility Lyngodh, a septuagenarian widow lost her 27-year-old daughter to "radiation". She died of "internal bleeding". "It is very alarming that with such little exposure so many cases of illness have been reported," he said. On April 11, 2005, as many as 11 persons from Plandilion inexplicably died of high fever, he claimed.

In Jaduguda, too, the fear of radiation is real. Ghanshyam Birulee is the founder of the Jharkhand Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR) and lives at Tilaitant village about 3 km from the tailing pond. He argued that although UCIL would not accept that there was radiation in and around Jaduguda, a case study revealed that people living near the UCIL works were affected by "uranium radiation". Some of the effects, he said, included loss of virility among men, infertility among women, deformity at birth among children and high incidence of cancer.

At Peddagatta, with the Nagarjuna Sagar reservoir in the backdrop, the hills where UCIL has proposed underground mines.-H. SATISH

But if Birulee's fears are true, there was no evidence of it in Chatikocha, a village of 75 families. It was alive with the shouts of children playing in the field and one wondered if women had indeed been rendered barren by radiation from the tailing ponds. Jagannath Mardi, the pradhan who is employed in UCIL, denies any physical manifestation of radiation among the residents. "Some people say there is radiation here but there is no evidence of it so far," he said.

At Wakhaji, the place nearest to Kylleng-Pyndengsohiong, the headman, P.F. Lyngdoh, declared: "If the projects do not affect human life, they are welcome but if they cause health hazard, we are going to oppose it." Some people said the projects would not affect people's health, while others claimed that they would. He requested the State government, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) and NGOs to help find the truth and not drag the projects into politics.

Truth is perhaps the biggest casualty at Devarkonda in Nalgonda district. The majority of the Lambadas there believe that "uranium" is a bomb that can go off any moment. Anti-uranium activists have also succeeded in mobilising the tribal people against UCIL's projects at Lambapur, while at Peddagattu the villagers are enthusiastic about the proposed mines. Lambada women of Lambapur complained to Nalgonda Collector Rama Prakash Sisodia that they were beaten and chased by the people of Peddagattu when they had gone there to express their views against the project.

According to V.P. Raja, Additional Secretary (Industry and Minerals), Department of Atomic Energy, one of the difficulties the DAE faced was the public perception of nuclear power, which was suffused with "all kinds of myths". "An uninformed debate is going on in the country, which is doing harm... . There is nothing to be afraid of radiation," he said at a function at Jaduguda on August 29. "There are wheels within wheels in this anti-nuclear propaganda. I am not painting everybody with the same brush. Some are acting as mercenaries of outside forces."

Raja said at a function at Jaduguda on August 29 that the background radiation from the monazite sand on the beaches of Kerala was 20 times more than the radiation from the tailing ponds at Jaduguda. "This (monazite sand) has not caused cancer among the people there." The DAE was not against a debate on nuclear power or radiation; however, from an uninformed debate it should transform into an informed debate, he added.

At Seripalle, a Lambada elder argues with a youth who is in favour of the proposed mill at the village.-H. SATISH

Dr. Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and Secretary, DAE, said the AMD and UCIL were working with great commitment and against heavy odds in the dense forests of Karnataka and Meghalaya, the deserts of Rajasthan and the hills of Andhra Pradesh. However, "a lot of misinformation has been spread" about nuclear power and radiation. "Sometimes it is done with a purpose. So it is important that people should know the facts," Kakodkar said.

N.M. Bahl, Deputy General Manager (Civil), UCIL, Hyderabad, said UCIL personnel were ready to clarify any technical issue raised by the government and NGOs.

According to Ramendra Gupta, Chairman and Managing Director, UCIL, it was attempting to answer the people's queries, explain scientific facts to them and convince them. "There is a better understanding of our operations at Jaduguda because our interaction with the public and the media is better there," he added.

Indeed, at Bagjata, about 30 km from Jaduguda, the residents welcomed the revival of the mine which was closed in the early 1990s owing to a funds crunch. They chased away outsiders, including activists of the JOAR who had gone there to attend the public hearing by the Jharkhand Pollution Control Board on the revival of the mine. Seventy-odd residents of Bagjata and nearby villages look forward to getting back the jobs they lost because of the closure of the mines.

Charu Chandra Mandi, 39, was given a job by UCIL after it acquired his land (39 decimal) for the mine. His family also received Rs.52,000 as compensation. By his own admission, although the land was of superior quality, producing a high yield, his earning now at Rs.8,000 a month was substantially higher than the income he used to get from his land. "Not only am I happy but my neighbours in my village are pleased and do not mind losing their land. The mining project here will do wonders for our society as it will generate jobs and there will be overall development of the region," Mandi said. Those who gave their land to UCIL, received, besides compensation and jobs, a quarter to stay in. In the vicinity, UCIL is constructing two buildings for a school in place of the old ones. "This is part of our corporate social responsibility," said Swapnesh Kumar Malhotra, head of the Public Awareness Division of the DAE.

Samuel Jyrwa of the Khasi Students Union.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

In Phuljari, a village adjacent to the mine, the residents are happy with the revival of the Bagjata mine. Karu Soren received Rs.38,000 for his 46 decimal of land and a permanent job in UCIL. "This is a good thing that is happening here," Soren said. "This is a backward tribal area, and there has never been any permanent means of livelihood other than cultivation. With the reopening of the Bagjata project, most families in the surrounding area have benefited, as someone or the other in each of them has found a job in UCIL," he said.

There are voices of dissent too. Kanu Madi, 21, does not wish to remain a casual labourer and wants to be made permanent. While the UCIL provided his two brothers, Bhagwat and Rameswar, permanent jobs for the land it acquired from their families, UCIL had not taken him as a full-time employee. "Ours is not a joint family... so what am I left with? I am married and I have to support my family," said the young Santhal Adivasi who earns Rs.67 a day as a casual hand.

Down the western hill of Banduhurang, amidst scattered debris of demolished homes of Adivasis, Suneeta Ho was gathering firewood. She, like others of her village, lost her land to UCIL's project at Turmdih. She does not know how much money her husband got for the land, but her husband got a job at the site, and the young couple have a home too.

A single big house with a courtyard and a large garden still stood defiantly on one side of the hill, its residents refusing to hand it over to UCIL until their conditions were met. Deugi Paria, the 70-year-old matriarch of the family, said she had patta for her house and the land but the other houses on the hill did not. "So we deserve more." It was not enough if only one male member of the family got a job in UCIL. "I want jobs for all three men in the family," Deugi said.

Although her plot of land is not small, living conditions are getting increasingly difficult for her family of seven. All their neighbours have sold their land and left the hill. "Stones keep coming at our house from the blasting that takes place at the project site," said Kuni, one of Deugi's daughters. The land has been Deugi's home for more than 50 years, and she seemed determined not to give it up without a fight. "We have already gone to court over this. We will only leave on our own terms," she said. Perhaps it is a losing battle she and the Lambadas of Seripalle are fighting.

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