The drill at Wakhyn

Print edition : January 13, 2006

Frontline visits AMD's Drill Site No 85 in Meghalaya.

The road to Wakhyn, where the AMD is carrying out exploration for uranium.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

IN a small clearing in the dense forest surrounded by high hills and countless streams stands a drilling rig of the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD). This is Drill Site No. 85, in Meghalaya. The nearest village, Mawmarin, is about 20 km away. The Frontline team had driven with officials of the AMD through non-existent tracks to reach the nearby AMD camp the previous night. It was 9 a.m. and suddenly, out of nowhere, Hero Dimus stepped into the clearing. A Khasi tribal person belonging to the Hasha clan, he had made his way through the thick forest, and across the mighty Wahblei river on a bamboo raft he rigged up, to reach the clearing. Asked how he zeroed in on the clearing with nothing but a hatchet in hand, he just smiled. He was in Wakhyn/Tiniang because his clan had assigned him to work for the AMD.

Wakhyn is a portmanteau term coined by the AMD and is derived from the Wahblei and Kynshi rivers, which meet near the AMD's Tiniang camp, so named after the big nullah flowing nearby.

The camp is nestled in a valley surrounded by thickly forested hills, even wireless signals cannot reach it.

"Come on boys, let's go for a picnic," said Swapnesh Kumar Malhotra, head of the Public Awareness Division of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the previous day at Shillong. And what "a picnic" it was, with its high point undoubtedly the encounter with a monocled black cobra that was ready to strike.

Pramod Kumar, project-in-charge, testing a rock.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

From Shillong to the Tiniang camp is a distance of about 150 km. Up to Nongstoin, 80 km away, the drive was on smooth, well-laid macadam, through pine forests, along calm streams and past gentle waterfalls on hillocks, atop some of which were churches.

The next 70 km to Tiniang was a test of skill and endurance for driver and passenger alike. The first 60 km, called the "PWD road", ended at Mawmarin and took four hours to traverse. It was virtually a bed of boulders, which the Mahindra jeeps negotiated with lan, interspersed with pucca bridges across rivers. Interestingly, the dense forests on either side of the road showed no sign of bird life. The reason became clear when one noticed that every boy one came across on this stretch had a catapult. In many places were heaps of charcoal from trees that had been burnt, waiting to be carted away to the town and sold.

The last 10 km is called the "AMD road", a narrow track of boulders that took the AMD four months to build after clearing the dense forest. At places, the boulders were so steep that the jeeps climbed vertically one moment and dived into the ground the next, leaving our innards in turmoil. Often, a hill range of breathtaking greenery came into view, until suddenly one saw the tin sheds of the Tiniang camp even as dusk descended on the dense forests.

The sides and roofs of the sheds were of galvanised iron sheets and the mud flooring was covered with a layer of cement. The camp had around 80 people, including geologists and engineers, and it had a badminton court, a dining hall, a bamboo hut with a fireplace, and a laboratory to test rock samples for uranium.

The next morning, we set out for Drill Site No.85, situated 10 km away in the maw of the forests. How the AMD personnel transported a 10-tonne rig from Shillong to the site, albeit in a semi-knocked-down condition, defies imagination. When we reached the spot, the drill-bit of the rig was being cooled with the water pumped from a stream. This was ingenuity at work.

IN Meghalaya's matrilineal society, there is no concept of government property or poromboke land. The Khasi tribal people have a well-defined system of ownership of land, all of which, including forests and rivers, is privately owned and in the hands of women. It is incredible how a woman can point to a large swathe of forests and say that she owns so much of the forest, including the rivers that flow through them. There are no fences or fights about the extent of ownership.

On the southern part of Meghalaya are the Jaintia hills, in the central part are the Khasi hills and in the western part are the Garo hills. Meghalaya is divided into "syiemships". A syiem is the "raja" of a particular area and he has a "durbar" of Ministers. Under the Syiem is a village headman, who wields considerable power. When the AMD selects an area for exploration it has to apply to the office of syiemship of the area for permission. The AMD reaches a three-year agreement with the clan and pays an annual rent to the woman who owns the area.

"We came to Wakhyn after we did a series of research studies," said Pramod Kumar, project-in-charge at Wakhyn. The AMD had investigated in a number of places, including Gomaghat, Trysai and Domiasiat. A substantial portion of the geological formation in Meghalaya comes under what is called the Mahadek sandstone formation, which is about 65 million years old. "This sandstone is a good host for uranium. Worldwide, we have good [uranium] deposits in sandstone formation. Eighteen per cent of the world's uranium resources are in sandstone type," said Pramod Kumar.

The AMD had surveyed the Mahadek formation for the past few decades and found surface indications, called anomalies, in many places, indicating the presence of uranium. Based on these anomalies and favourable characteristics of the host rock, the AMD did a detailed investigation and prepared geological maps. This led to the establishment of many characteristic geological features for uranium. The AMD then conducted exploratory drilling for rock samples and information on the depth of the find. As a result, a three-dimensional picture of the ore body - its length, breadth and height - became available. This, in turn, revealed the tonnage of the deposit available. (If it is a commercially viable deposit, it is handed over to Uranium Corporation of India Limited for mining.) The first uranium deposit that the AMD found in Meghalaya was in Domiasiat/Kylleng-Pyndengsohiong, which is reportedly the country's largest discovered to date. The grade of the ore is 0.1 per cent.

Although the Mahadek formation spans about 1,200 sq km, the AMD has been able to cover only 3 per cent of this area in the past 40 years, for the State offers formidable challenges in the form of very heavy rainfall, thick forests and turbulent rivers.

Machinery assembled by AMD personnel for exploration work.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

"Apply a mosquito repellant on your shoes the same way you apply boot polish," Pramod Kumar commanded us as we got into the jeep at Tiniang camp to go to Drill Site No. 85. Despite this protection, at the drill site leeches had wormed their way up our legs and it was only when we felt a sharp pain we realised that leeches were busy sucking away our blood. We tried to prise them out, but their grip only tightened. But with a daub of Odomos they fell away like dry leaves from a tree.

We trekked for an hour and 15 minutes, heaving ourselves up with bamboo poles on the steep gradient in the thick forest, to reach the Wahblei river about 3.5 km away. On the way, were rusted drill pipes and abandoned sheds of the AMD. Suddenly, the Wahblei river came into view.

According to Yushta Sangriang, a Khasi tribal and a tradesman working with the AMD, the river was 25 metres deep in places. The AMD had done drilling on the opposite bank and a trained elephant was used to shift a rig to the drilling site. On instructions from Pramod Kumar, Yushta Sangriang put down a scintillometer on a rock on the bank. Pramod Kumar explained that if the scintillometer showed a reading of three or more, it meant that there was radioactivity emanating from the rocks, which may have uranium or thorium. A sample of the rock was then taken and sent to the laboratory.

After an hour or so we begin the trek back to Drill Site No. 85 and from there to Tiniang camp. A few hours and a bone-rattling drive later, we are at Nongstoin and finally cruising to Shillong and civilisation - a journey that the brave men of the AMD undertake regularly in their search for uranium.

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