Ankita Anand

When asked about their views on uranium mining in Meghalaya, most local people started with, ‘You know it is a very sensitive issue here’, and they were not exaggerating. The Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) found uranium in Domiasiat, Meghalaya in 1984, and in 1991, the Uranium Council of India Limited (UCIL) first started drilling in the area. But during the next couple of years, the project faced a roadblock. Many name the late Hoping Stone Lyngdoh, a legislator in the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP) of Meghalaya, as one of the first to have started studying about uranium mining and its possible adverse effects, and then rallying people to oppose it. Khasi Students Union (KSU) was another resistance group at the forefront. Since then UCIL has been constantly trying to resume operations full throttle and, after a lot of back and forth, earlier this year the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), which represents the region’s autonomy per the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution, withdrew the ‘No Objection Certificate’ issued to the company.

I visited Meghalaya in May 2017 to understand the situation better, and most people I spoke to vehemently opposed the project. But there were also some who felt mining would have brought development to the State and contributed to nation building. Such people said that because elections were approaching, those who opposed the project were doing so to gain political mileage. I heard about a journalist who spoke in favour of mining and got assaulted. HS Shylla, ex-chief executive member (CEM) of KHADC, had also supported the project at one point. Having initially agreed to a meeting with me, he changed his mind later and sent a statement, ‘Rightly or wrongly, I don’t know for sure, but the people of Meghalaya in general and Khasi and Jaintia hills, in particular, have been made to accept that mining of uranium will cause deadly health hazard. People, especially youth, are ever ready to die for this’. I tried to contact UCIL and AMD for interviews but I was told the UCIL chief was travelling, and AMD did not respond.

There is one part of the project which interests even many of those who are staunchly against mining. This is the 68 km Nongstoin-Pambriew-Wahkaji-Mawthabah stretch, which UCIL was to make into a two lane road. Many among the general public had waited eagerly for this as it would have connected remote areas to the more developed ones. With the company currently out of the picture, this too has come to a standstill though the Council has now taken up the task.

Ground Realities

Laitduh village, Sohra

In Laitduh, a village around 60 km away from Shillong in Sohra, UCIL had first made its presence felt around 2003. I travelled from Shillong to Sohra where a couple of KSU members accompanied me to Laitduh. The Khasi Students Union has been in Meghalaya for a long time now and has a strong hold in the villages as well. The village secretary, Jingkyrmenlang Lyngdoh, met us in the village and showed us the old drilling holes, some of whose locations he remembered.

Some of the rusted metallic pipes in the ground had their mouths open. This was a cause for concern for the villagers. They feared such places might still be radioactive and could then contaminate the air and the water. Some others were just holes in the ground. At places they had been partially covered with big stones or cement lids, bearing the initials of the village. There were also spots which looked as if they were well covered by these lids but they could easily be lifted, exposing the holes.

I started talking to a group of construction workers and some villagers also gathered around. Richmond Kharmalki said that if mining took place in their area it would turn out to be another Jaduguda (in Jharkhand) where UCIL’s mining of the ore is known to have caused serious health hazards for the people. Golden Star Kharchandy added, ‘Since we have not been told by the government about what exactly the effects of the mining could be, people are scared’. To the development question, Apilattues Kharchandy’s answer was, ‘First people have to know what sort of development is being talked about’.

Apilattues continued, ‘In 2003, the company had taken the village’s permission only for a survey but they also conducted drilling. Around 15-17 people went with the survey team’. One of the men present remembered carrying a machine for the team as a teenager. At that time the company had taken the village headman’s permission. The company officials were seen taking some rock samples. But none of the villagers recalled any official having spoken about what exactly they were doing.

In the year 2015, Damil Bynnud, the district KSU President, had read in the papers about the AMD’s plan to come to the area and had told local people about it. They had a meeting attended by about 300 people and had decided that they would approach the CEM of KHADC to prevent the AMD from coming.

The local residents believed that after UCIL’s initial work in the area, even though it had not continued, some villagers had developed cancer and tuberculosis. I asked if such diseases did not happen earlier. ‘No, but we think in these cases it was the air from the open drilling holes’.

In a tea shop nearby, some women shared their thoughts. Bullina Kharchandy, now retired, used to teach in the lower primary school in Lummawshken village nearby. ‘When UCIL came, nobody knew it was for uranium. We learnt about this only after the drilling. We did not want it to continue because we want health, not wealth’. She laughed, proud of her knowledge of the proverb, and repeated the phrase. ‘Even if the government promises us safety, response from other elders, surrounding villages and NGOs has to be taken into account’.

Another woman in the group, S. Skhembill, said, ‘We do not want development if it comes only with uranium mining. It would affect our health. We are farmers; we cannot afford for our animals to fall sick either. And we have heard they would build nuclear weapons with the energy produced. We are not in its favour’. This concern for ‘all things both great and small’ is also found in traditional Khasi stories that begin with ‘When man and beasts and stones and trees spoke as one . . .’

I asked the shop owner for water and KSU members queried with a half smile if I would drink the water of this region. I asked KSU if they would. ‘We have to live here. What option do we have?’ I talked a bit about Amitav Ghosh’s book Countdown which mentions how government officials did not have the local water around Pokhran (Rajasthan), the site of India’s second nuclear test. The union people wanted to know if Ghosh had it. I didn’t remember that bit but I added that the author had also not been claiming that the water was safe to drink.

Domiasiat village, Ranikor

KSU members agreed to accompany me to Domiasiat in West Khasi Hills, around 130 km from Shillong, and help me with the Khasi to English translation. I expected one or two members but on the day there were two jeeps full of them. Though nobody else I had met had mentioned this, KSU said they found it safer to go in big groups as the area has insurgents and there had been some recent kidnappings.

The road to Domiasiat is a long and arduous one and the students carried whatever they thought they would need, an auxiliary cable, to begin with. When it started working, there was a jubilant cry in the car. The soft hum that began to play made me think it was a Khasi love song. A student member, Phulchand, explained what it said, ‘Before it is too late, let us stand up to defend what is ours’. KSU has a group of people with whose help they compose such patriotic songs and sell the CDs. Even if the sales just cover the costs, they are happy to get the message across to people.

Once we reached Mowronong view point, the road started disintegrating. The conversation inevitably turned to the subject at hand. Pulljohn Wannianj was clear, ‘Constructing a two-lane here can mean one thing and one thing only: mining. If it’s repair and proper road building for the sake of development, we would have been ok with that’.

As we neared Domiasiat, we came across the abandoned buildings where workers employed at the mining sites would have stayed. Near the entrance, a sign warned against leaving the campus after 9 pm, deforestation, alcohol, noise, bringing wives and children, and marrying indigenous people. The last bit reminded me of how some of the people interviewed had said that the main fear of the people (including KSU who have also been against railways) opposing mining was that of outsiders coming in. Starfing Pdahkasiej, editor of SP News Agency, who had told me his uncle Dominic Pdahkasiej was the first person to have been deputed for drilling, had also mentioned similar concerns among local people, “There is a limited number of government jobs available. People with MA degrees are applying to be peons. When companies like UCIL come, there is talk of employment generation but they always keep the locals in the lower rungs, not in decision making positions.”

Going further into Wahkaji, another abandoned construction is the primary health centre that was supposed to function while UCIL conducted its operations.

I was informed that after one point cars cannot go in and we would have to trek through the forest for about thirty-forty minutes to reach the site. The jeep almost miraculously made its way through the rugged terrain to the point where the forest began. The small plate of rice and meat the others had in the morning seemed like an old story at this point, everyone getting even more exhausted with the hot sun. With some reluctance, they agreed to share the packet of biscuits I had. With the renewed energy brought by four biscuits each, we started walking, trying not to be slowed down too much by mossy stones and brambles covering our way.

The now closed drilling sites shown to me seemed like big water tanks almost at ground level, now cemented and covered. What bothered people were the many cracks that had appeared. Where repairs had been undertaken to fix them, after people’s protests, they had not been to people’s satisfaction. Phulchand said, ‘If there are cracks there would be a leak. I’ve read that concrete can’t stop radioactivity. Only lead can’. The other thing that made them uncomfortable were open pipes that apparently had been installed to release effluents. KSU people took care not to fill water in their empty bottles from streams around this area and kept insisting I cover my face with a mask even in the heat. For a long time after, we made do with the half a bottle of water that I, after a moment of hesitation about whether I’d be left with any and subsequent shame about the inadvertent thought, invited them to share.

Not far from the site is Nongtynger village, where UCIL’s engraved stone talks of its ‘donation’ of something like a small, open water tank-well. Covered on three sides, the opening showed water on the surface which two girls were using to the wash their hair and utensils. We filled our bottles with the water.

Our next stop was the house of Spleity Langrin, an elderly matriarch, around 90, who has become the face of the anti-mining resistance. The early evening light was still clear as it fell on the green fields around but inside the hut, it was almost completely dark. Kong Spleity was not too well and we decided not to disturb her but she said she would like to meet us considering we had come all the way. I was wary of asking the usual questions about her opposition to the project, feeling she must have already narrated the same story to so many people. But she said, ‘If it is about asserting my right over my land, I can do it any number of times. We belong here and we won’t give up our land till death’. Of her experience with people involved in the project, she said, ‘The people who had come were very rude. They did not interact with the people here’.

Her daughter Silnola Langrin describes the various health effects due to mining that people, especially women and children, of the area had to endure. ‘One of them died at childbirth. My sister suffered too’. However, there are still people who are willing to sell their land to the company. KSU admits that in the Nongjri area many people did not want to talk to them because they were upset with KSU for opposing mining. KSU said in these families too there were children born with deformities but the parents were not ready to see uranium mining as the cause. But such people did not change Silnola Langrin’s opinion, ‘I know because I have seen the effects first hand’.

Silnola’s brother, Flavour Langrin, was happy to welcome anyone who came to meet them to offer support. With reference to their dark hut, he said electricity had reached them but after the first two months it never returned and complaining to the electricity board did not help.

Karmel Thongni, 45, is another resident of the Wahkaji area. ‘We definitely oppose mining, though people in villages supporting it are upset with us’. This area is so cut-off. What kind of development would be most helpful for people here? Karmel laughed, ‘There is so much we need. I don’t even know where to begin’.

The dhaba in Wahkaji where we stopped for dinner was run by the family of a traditional musician. His nephew, Ehbok Langrin, worked in Shillong and was visiting. About uranium mining, he said, ‘Some say it is good and others oppose it. But what we do know is we don’t want to get displaced and leave our home. I am an engineer and I was getting paid better in Mumbai. Yet I came to Shillong to stay close to home’.

The Council

In an interview, the CEM of KHADC, P.N. Syiem, asserted, ‘Land is a state subject so how can the state pass a law against people’s wishes? The MoU we had with UCIL was only for the road. In 1993, they had been allowed some construction. But some paragraph in it talked about mining which we missed. Anyway, now the MoU has been withdrawn’.

What happens now to the two-lane project proposed by UCIL? ‘At times there are so many complications. The outgoing CEM had opened a joint account for KHADC with UCIL for this project. First, we had to close the account’.

The CEM was perplexed that despite the council’s supposed autonomy so many nods still have to come from the State government before decisions can be taken. ‘We have asked the government for an NOC to repair the road as 18 kms of work has already been done by UCIL of a total of about 70 kms. Once it comes through work would be resumed’.

What the Experts Say

Professor Om Prakash Singh teaches in the department of environmental studies in the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. When I raised the point of people’s concern over open drilling holes, he said, ‘That is a genuine point. When it rains, the same uranium goes downstream and during drilling the chances of leaching (which could release toxic effluents in the environment) increase’. Another issue that had come up in my discussion with NGOs was that there was only a small percentage of uranium in Meghalaya and the quality was not that good either. Singh shrugged, ‘UCIL seems to believe differently’. Responding to reports of deformities and diseases found in people living around mining sites, he said nothing had been proved.

In 2004, Singh was part of an environment impact assessment (EIA) group and had visited the concerned areas in Meghalaya. ‘The area-the flora and the fauna-seemed normal. The method involves generating baseline data which is later compared to the data of that place after mining is done. We can predict possible adverse effects and the mining company has to follow guidelines on the basis of which clearance is given’.

Do companies adhere to these guidelines and is there a strict check on them? ‘The state pollution board is supposed to get regular reports from them but, yes, I would say that implementation is not done properly’. What about the safety measures for the workers on the site? ‘Those too have been neglected in our country in the past; it’s true’.

Over email, I invited the views of some other academics on the subject. Craig Hart, associate professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC), shared, ‘Generally, open drill holes are not a problem. The only issue would be if there was water coming out from it, as it could cause an adjustment in the water table. In these cases, concrete could be used to fill them’.

Bern Klein is an associate professor of Mining Engineering in the same institution. He was of the opinion that ‘the risk would also depend on the concentration of uranium at depth.‎ However, drill holes can fill in over time so I really don’t believe there is a radiation issue. To test, you could measure radioactivity near the drill holes and some distance away’.

Another mining engineering assistant professor, Marcello Veiga, UBC, said, ‘The main concern of uranium is not in the mining step but in the nuclear energy plants’.

The problem with scientific takes is that both in India and outside, the community has often been divided about the mining of uranium. Not enough has been done to break down this information in a layperson’s terms for people to understand. NGOs and unions are accused of propaganda but they are the ones who succeed in having conversations with people while companies share information mostly with selected urban, educated groups and officials.

Where do the Tribal Chiefs Stand?

A 1853 report on the Khasi and Jaintia Hills by AJM Mills, sent on deputation to the Northeast frontier by the British government, documents treaties between the then government and the ‘Khasia chieftains’. While the chiefs agreed to accede to the Company in a lot of matters, they also put up a fight to retain their autonomy wherever possible. The very first clause of one such treaty reads, ‘We (the chiefs), in conjunction with those who reside and trade in our territory, shall continue to conduct the business of our territories, keeping the ryots contented, in conformity to the former rules and customs. This country will have no concern with any of the courts of Government . . .’

Today too the tribal chiefs continue their efforts to assert their independence. The chair of the grand council of chiefs of Meghalaya (Federation of Khasi States), John F Kharshiing, isn’t one to mince words, ‘Kashmir was lucky to have article 370 grant it autonomous status. We had nobody to speak for us when these decisions were being taken’.

But isn’t the KHADC precisely there for this purpose, to protect the autonomy of the Khasis? Kharshiing rejects this claim, ‘Our chiefs are not represented by KHADC. The council is a political body’.

Kharshiing has been active in mobilising support against mining activities. Around 2007-08, he travelled to rural Mawkyrwat, taking a television set and a copy of the film Buddha Weeps in Jaduguda. ‘We should focus more on other advanced technology rather than atomic power. Look at the cyber attack on Russia; everything happened through computers’.

Coming back to the uranium rich areas in question, he recalled a British map that shows the presence of thick forests and special birds in the region that could get endangered. He also mentioned proximity to international borders and the requirement of huge amounts of water in the process of mining. ‘If the centre tries to forcibly do anything here, they would have a Kashmir like situation at hand’.

In India where companies are granted EIA waivers and penalties are not paid even upon proof of violations, scientific studies and their results have not been the only basis of whether a company gets to launch operations that might impact the environment. In Meghalaya too, the issue of uranium mining is fraught with the apprehensions of student bodies and NGOs; the tensions between the State, the district council and the tribal chiefs; and the concerns of the people about land ownership and displacement, health, environment, the true purpose of nuclear energy, and whether mining is the mandatory cost they have to pay in order to be the benefactors of some much-needed development, including the basic services of roads and electricity.

Based in Delhi, Ankita Anand primarily writes and reports on social justice issues. The above article was first published in Eclectic NorthEast, July 2017.