Villages and woes

Print edition : August 28, 1999

Tribal people living near the uranium mining and processing facilities say they are the victims of radiation. But UCIL attributes their afflictions to other factors.

URANIUM Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) is today at the centre of a controversy which relates to allegations that tribal people living near the three tailings ponds outside Jaduguda have become victims of radiation. Tailings are radioactive waste tha t is left behind during uranium processing. Villages such as Dungridih, Chatitocha, Tilaitand, Mechua and Matigora, are situated between 250 metres to 3.5 km from the UCIL facilities.

Ghanshyam Biruli, president of Jharkhand Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR), which leads a struggle on behalf of the tribal people, says that a survey conducted by the organisation in 1997 revealed that a large number of residents of the villages suff er from cancer, skin diseases, physical deformities, blindness, brain damage, disruption of menstrual cycle or loss of fertility. Children are the most affected, according to him. Biruli belongs to Tilaitand village.

Top officials of UCIL and scientists of the Environmental Survey Laboratory (ESL), Jaduguda, which is under the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), refute the allegations and cite a BARC committee report in support of their stand. The report, which was submitted in December 1998, says: "The team was convinced and unanimously agreed that the diseases pattern cannot be ascribed to radiation exposure in these areas."

Since uranium forms only 0.5 per cent of the ore, almost the entire bulk of the material handled is rejected as waste. The waste, however, contains all the radionuclides other than uranium that occur in the ore. It also carries additive chemicals such as manganese, sulphates and chlorides. As Radon-222, a kind of radiation, is emitted from the tailings, the waste has to be disposed of carefully. The tailings are neutralised with lime and carried from Jaduguda through pipelines to the tailings ponds. Cle an water from the ponds comes out of decantation wells and is taken through a closed channel to an effluent treatment plant for the removal of radium and manganese. The solid tailings are retained in the ponds.

The ponds, situated about 2 km from Jaduguda, are engineered structures with massive bunds made of rocks and earth. These bunds/embankments are 125 metres wide at the base and 25 metres high.

A wide embankment under construction for the third tailings pond.-SUSHANTO PATRONOBISH

When the controversy erupted in 1991, it was of a different nature. It began as an agitation against UCIL displacing local people in order to construct the third tailings pond. The tribal people who were threatened with displacement formed the Jharkand A divasi Bistapit Nirojgar Sangh under Biruli's leadership. He told Frontline: "When UCIL started mining in Jaduguda our families gave away their lands. They have not received compensation for them. Our demands are that those who lost their land in recent times in the process of expansion of the company's activities should be employed in UCIL, given compensation based on the price of land, and provided with alternative land to set up their homesteads."

After several meetings with the organisation's leaders, UCIL agreed to allot 12 decimal of land at Do Vani village to 30 displaced villagers and pay a compensation of Rs.65,000 to each family to build a house. J.L. Bhasin, UCIL's Chairman and Managing Di rector, said: "We were willing to give compensation and employment to the displaced villagers but Biruli tried to coerce us into employing people of his choice. We were not ready to accept that."

However, UCIL's problems on this count were far from over. The Jharkhand Adivasi Bistapit Nirojgar Sangh transformed itself into the Jharkhand Organisation Against Radiation as its members felt that radiation from the ponds affected the inhabitants of th e area.

In a report in CSE-Down to Earth Feature Service, entitled "A deformed existence" and dated June 4, 1999, Manish Tiwari quoted Biruli as saying, "Many women in the area complain of disrupted menstrual cycles. This area also has a high rate of either misc arriages or still-born babies... Biruli claims that nearly 30,000 people living in 15 villages in the five-km radius of the tailings ponds are exposed to radiation. 'Earlier, children were still-born. Now they die within few days of their birth,' he says . He also claims that nearly one-third of the women living in these areas are suffering from loss of fertility. Even animals such as cows and buffaloes are suffering from rare diseases."

A.H. Khan, scientific officer of the Jaduguda mine, measuring the radiation readings with the help of a dosimeter.-SUSHANTO PATRONOBISH

The JOAR found a friend in Medha Patkar, the anti-Narmada Valley Project activist, who visited the villages. According to Biruli, "her visit was a source of strength and support to the people."

Pano Majhi, a JOAR activist, told Frontline that "none of the doctors in the area could say for sure that radiation is the cause of the ailments, yet cases of tuberculosis, cancer and child mortality are high here." His father, an ex-UCIL employee , died of cancer at the age of 42. Dopan Majhi (65), pradhan of Tilaitand, said: "When UCIL started its operations, a lot of my contemporaries were employed there. They are all dead now."

According to Jyotsna Tirkey, a member of the Adivasi Mahila Manch, which works in close association with JOAR, it has been found that since 1990, more and more women are becoming barren in the villages situated near Jaduguda. Many of those who conceived gave birth to still-born or deformed babies. She said: "This has shattered the sociological pattern in the villages. More and more marriages are breaking up and the practice of bigamy is growing."

Ghanshyam Biruli, president of the Jharkand Organisation Against Radiation.-ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

THE Bihar Government set up a committee of the Legislative Council (Rajya Vidhan Parishad Paryavaran Samiti) under the chairmanship of Gautam Sagar Rana to investigate the matter. The committee, in its report submitted in December 1998, said: "The waste material, which contains traces of radioactive materials, should be taken to the effluent treatment plants by pipes. It was noticed by the team that water from the dumping ground is returned by open drains. This may allow some of the radioactive material s to be absorbed by the soil, which may result in long-term radiation problems." The report said that there were traces of radiation, up to 0.2 millirem (mr) an hour, in the "flowing water exposed to the public".

The committee expressed concern about the safety aspect with regard to the tailings ponds. It said: "The people and cattle have free and unchecked access to the area around the mines. The dumping ponds are unfenced and there are no proper warning signs t o restrict entry."

Bhasin said that the committee members "bulldozed the people" and did not have a medical practitioner on the panel. Biruli would just collect five people and declare that they suffered from the effects of radiation, he alleged. He added that Biruli did n ot associate himself with any committee. Bhasin said that the Legislative Council Committee report contained contradictions. The report noted that "none of them (affected tribal people) mentioned any problem relating to radiation hazard..." and that "the radiation was well within tolerance limits."

Bhasin said: "The report is ambiguous. It is in no way conclusive." On the one hand it says that the symptoms could be attributed to radiation while on the other hand it says that there is no proof that the local people had really been affected by radiat ion, he added.

The BARC committee came to Jaduguda in November 1998 at the request of the State Government. Its report, entitled "Medical Survey of Inhabitants Residing Within Two-Km Radius of the UCIL's Tailings Storage Pond", says: "In order to make a factual assessm ent regarding health impacts, if any, on account of radiation emission from the UCIL's tailings storage pond, a detailed medical survey was carried out by a team of doctors and scientists from BARC." The 11-member team consisted of Dr. S.S. Ali, medical officer-in-charge. Trombay Dispensary, and overall-in-charge, zonal dispensaries; Dr. L. Kasturi, head of the paediatric unit, BARC Hospital; Dr. M. Seshadri, Bio-Medical Group, and Dr. D.K. Ghosh. Besides, there were two doctors each from the Bihar Gove rnment and UCIL, two doctors, including a nuclear medicine specialist from the Tata Main Hospital, Jamshedpur, and a scientist from the ESL.

The BARC report says that the short-listed (doubtful) cases were examined in the hospital and the others at the villages. As most of the cases were of children, Dr. Kasturi "examined them in detail, reviewed the investigations, discussed with other team members... and concluded the opinion." Seshadri and Ghosh reviewed the monitoring levels provided by the ESL and personally verified them by doing the re-monitoring themselves.

Gandhar Karmakar of Mechua village (far left) and Mithun Patra of Bhatin village, both seven years old, carried by their fathers. A BARC report survey found that crippling diseases among people in the villages near the tailings pond could not be ascri bed to radiation.-ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

The committee concluded: "The consensus of all the doctors was that the cases examined had congenital anomalies, diseases due to genetic abnormalities like thalassaemia major and retinitis pigmentosa, moderate to gross splenomegaly due to chronic malaria l infection (as this is hyperendemic area), malnutrition, post encephalitis, post head injury sequelae and certain habits (alcohol) and have no relation to radiation." Its report adds: "The team was convinced and unanimously agreed that the diseases' pat tern cannot be ascribed to radiation exposure in any of these cases."

In addition to a process of case-by-case medical examination, two BARC committee members and a Bihar Government doctor measured the radiation level from the tailings ponds and the nearby areas on November 30, 1998. They were assisted by three scientific/ technical members of the ESL. The instrument used was a dosimeter. The measurements were conducted one metre from the ground. These readings were compared with the readings taken between 1993 and 1997. The conclusion was that "the operations undertaken b y the UCIL in the Jaduguda environment have not resulted in any increase in the natural background radiation levels prescribed by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB)."

Bhasin said that malnutrition is the main cause of the high incidence of tuberculosis and child mortality and the low level of health among the tribal people. The men are generally healthy until the age of 27. He said that after that they took to drinkin g. This coupled with their poor economic background resulted in the deterioration of their health, he said.

TOP UCIL officials accompanied a team of journalists to the tailings ponds. The ponds are surrounded on three sides by verdant hills. In the valley there are paddy fields and the villages.

The ponds cover an area of 82.28 acres (32.9 hectares), 35 acres (14 hectares) and 76 acres (30.4 hectares) respectively. The first two have solid embankments as prescribed by the AERB. The bund for the third is under construction at a cost of Rs.2 crore s.

At the first pond, saturated with tailings, A.H. Khan, scientific officer and officer-in-charge, ESL, measured the radiation readings with the help of the dosimeter. Inside the pond the device registered a radiation count of 0.75 microGray an hour, whic h is three times the permissible limit of 0.25 microGray an hour. However, the level started dropping as the meter was moved away from the pond. It read 0.2 microGray an hour on the embankment, 0.17 outside the bund, then 0.15 and 0.11 outside - all belo w the permissible limit. In the third pond, the reading on the bund was 0.14 microGray. Khan said: "If the radiation count just outside the tailings pond falls below the permissible limit, then it is obvious that in the nearby villages it is much lower." (These limits are set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection). He said that radiation from the ponds did not go beyond a few metres.

According to Khan, the local background radiation in the area is 0.15 microGray an hour. For the common man, the threshold limit is 0.25 microGray an hour. The annual limit is 1,000 microGray. One would receive this limit (of 1,000 microGray) only if one were to stand in the pond for four hours every day, 365 days of a year.

Khan, who has been on the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) technical/advisory committees, said: "In the last 33 years, there has been no significant impact on radiation because of the UCIL's operations." He said that while the limit was 20 mil lisieverts for a mine worker, the average radiation doses received by him in the last five years at Jaduguda, Bhatin and Narwapahar were eight, five and seven millisieverts respectively.

K.K. Beri, Director (Technical), UCIL, said: "We give all the information to the IAEA." He said that environmental gamma radiation measurements were done in 22 places up to a distance of 25 km (at Jamshedpur) and they indicated that UCIL's operations had virtually no impact on the environment. The places included the Jaduguda, Bhatin and Narwapahar mines, Dungridih north and south, Chatitocha, Tilaitand, Matigora and Jamshedpur. The natural background exposure level in this region varied from 782 to 1,5 86 microGray a year with an average of 1,106 microGray a year. In fact, the allowable gamma radiation level for exposure to the public from the nuclear industry was 1,000 microGray a year above the natural regional background level, Beri said.

Bhasin said that each UCIL worker was sent for medical examination every five years. They undergo breath examination regularly. While the worker kept the medical examination record, UCIL kept the radiation records. "Not a single worker has asked for the records, nor have I denied him these when asked," the CMD said. Between 1967 and 1994, 22 employees had been stricken with cancer, he said.

Bhasin said that UCIL wanted 15 families living near the first and third ponds to vacate. "That is not because there is a hazard of radiation but we want some elbow room." UCIL offered these families alternative sites in three places, levelled the land a nd offered to instalhandpumps.

The district administration is unable to shift them. Bhasin asked: "Why do they not shift?" Thus the stalemate continues.

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