Sagar | Caravan Magazine

“I had never seen something like that—there was red and black dust all around in the air,” Kartik Sardar, a 20-year-old resident of Tilaitand village in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district, told me. He was describing a dust storm had covered the neighbourhood and its houses one week before my visit to the area, on 20 May. The storm carried particles from a nearby reservoir-like structure, called a tailings pond, containing material that is discharged after the milling of uranium ore. Surendra Das, a shopkeeper in the area, said the intensity of the storm had forced him to keep his shop closed for two hours for three consecutive days during the storm. “You wouldn’t have been visible to me if you stood next to me here,” Sardar added. “It was so suffocating.”

During the milling process, a huge amount of nuclear waste in liquid form, or slurry, is left behind, which is expelled into the tailings ponds through long pipelines that pass through the villages. UCIL has erected signboards to warn people about the pond, which can be seen in the background. PHOTO: Chinky Shukla

The Tilaitand village, where the tailings pond is situated, is adjacent to the Hata-Musabani road, around 32 kilometres south-east of Jamshedpur city, and within two kilometres from a uranium mine in the Jadugoda town. The Jadugoda town is spread over four villages—Ichra, Bhatin, Tilaitand and Mechua—and the area contains one of seven uranium mines in Jharkhand, six of which are in East Singhbhum district, and one in Saraikela Kharsawan district. Though the mining activities at the Jadugoda mine are presently suspended, uranium ore from several mines is taken to the mill, or processing plant, in the area. There are two mills in the East Singhbhum—at Jadugoda and at Turamdih, a village in the district.

At the plants, after a process of crushing, wet grinding and leaching—a process through which the ore is converted into soluble salts—a concentrated uranium compound called uranium peroxide, or yellowcake, is obtained from the ore. The yellowcake is then stashed in drums and again transported to the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) in Hyderabad for enrichment. During the milling process, a huge amount of nuclear waste is left behind in liquid form—slurry—which is then expelled into the tailings ponds through long pipelines that pass through the villages. At the ponds, the heavy material that forms a part of the nuclear discharge takes a form of granular sand—this sand is what is termed tailings, and which often gets carried to the nearby villages during storms.

There are three tailings ponds in Jadugoda. The structures are surrounded on three sides by mining hills, and the fourth side contains an embankment, into which the nuclear waste is released through pipelines. The ponds are constructed and managed by the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL)—a public-sector undertaking that functions under the Department of Atomic Energy, which in turn works directly under the prime minister’s office.

The UCIL is responsible for the exploration and development of uranium mines in India, and the management of processing plants at Jaduguda, Turamdih and Tumalapalle in Andhra Pradesh, where new mines were discovered in 2011. The residents of Jaduguda refer to the UCIL as the “company.” According to an employee list available on its website, as of February 2015, UCIL employed 4,146 labourers in Jadugoda. According to several independent scientists who had conducted health surveys in the area, over 90 percent of the mining labourers were residents of the villages surrounding the mines.

A 2003 study paper on uranium mining prepared by three former office-bearers of the UCIL—RC Gupta, AC Kundu and AK Sarangi—notes that “during the processing of uranium ore, some radio-nuclides are generated and remain in the tailings.” Surendra Gadekar, a nuclear physicist who conducted a health survey in Jadugoda in 2001, told me that radionuclides—atoms of the uranium ore that emit gamma radiation—can cause cancer, besides having other health hazards. He said that he found that the level of radiation in “some pockets” in the area was “five–six times higher than normal.” He also added that he came across several cases of tuberculosis, cancer and congenital defects among the villagers during his survey.

According to Gadekar, even though radiation from the mines may not be the problem for people who did not work in the mines or come in close contact with yellowcake, “the spread of the toxic tailings could be catastrophic.” He added that tailings and slurry contained heavy metals such as cadmium, chromium and arsenic, which can damage liver and other human organs if they enter into human body. It was “absolutely possible,” Gadekar said, “that the slurry or tailings could recede into groundwater and enter into the food chain.”

Gadekar also noted that he could not claim with surety that the diseases that he observed among the subjects of his survey were caused only due to the radiation or toxicity of the slurry or tailings. But he added, “As a scientist, what I can say is that the presence of tailings and uranium mining in the region certainly made the villagers vulnerable to all the diseases that they were suffering from.”

The UCIL has consistently dismissed any concerns about the health hazards posed by the mining and milling of uranium. On a page on its website titled “Myth of UCIL,” the company addresses “unfounded apprehensions … alleging ill-effects of radiation around the uranium mining facilities.” The web page states that the UCIL has “always remained committed towards its neighbourhood development with adequate funds, manpower, and infrastructure.” It further states, “The tailings slurry along with liquid effluents is neutralized with lime to remove the soluble daughter nuclides and heavy metals.”

The UCIL’s position rejects several independent surveys conducted in Jadugoda by both national and international scientists. In its reply to a right-to-information application, which I received on 27 June last year, the UCIL stated that “no adverse effect on health attributable to UCIL operations is observed in the tribal population living in the vicinity.” Though the matter has been taken up by the Supreme Court and the Jharkhand High Court, the courts, too, ultimately did not find merit in the allegations against the UCIL’s mining and milling process. However, the independence of the investigations that led the courts to these conclusions remains questionable. I visited the area in late May last year, and the lived experiences the residents recounted significantly contradicted the UCIL’s claims. “Whoever has worked in the mine has either got lung cancer or TB,” Durga Majhi, a resident of Tilaitand and the brother of the village’s sarpanch, told me. “We want mining to be stopped forever.”

The resistance to uranium mining in Jadugoda is rooted deep in history. The UCIL’s website notes that the Jadugoda mine was India’s first uranium mine, and mining operations began at the site in 1967. The DAE’s website states that the Turamdih uranium deposit was discovered in 1969, and that the UCIL began constructing a mine at the site in 1989, but stopped in 1992. In the late 1980s, a local student group called the All Jharkhand Students’ Union (AJSU) began publicly raising issues such as radiation. But the mining and its effects were not the main agenda of the organisation—in 1996, a group of students founded the Jharkhand Adivasi Visthapit Berojga Sangh (JAVBS), which worked specifically against uranium mining. Ghanshyam Birulee, one of the founder members of the JAVBS, told me that his father was a uranium miner at the UCIL and died of lung cancer in 1984. According to Birulee, the UCIL commenced operations at the Turamdih mine after India successfully conducted nuclear tests in 1998. Subsequently, Birulee founded a new group called the Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR), of which he is currently the president.

Over the last two decades, there have been several non-government independent researchers and scientists who have visited Jaduguda—almost all of them concluded in their findings that the local populations faced a higher risk of health hazards due to the radiation. Among them was Shakeel Ur Rahman, the secretary of the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development—an association of medical professionals working in the field of nuclear disarmament. Rahman told me that he stayed in Jadugoda for one month in 2007 and conducted a health survey of its residents.

Rahman collected information from 2,118 households in five “study villages,” located within 2.5 kilometres of uranium mines, tailings ponds or mills; and from 1,094 households in 14 “reference villages,” located between 30 and 35 kilometres from the mining activities. Rahman said his findings showed an increased presence of diseases, such as primary sterility (a medical condition because of which women are unable to conceive), cancer and congenital conditions, in the villages near the mining activity. He added that these had also led to frequent deaths in the study villages, and a shorter lifespan among its residents. “It was highly likely that the toxic slurry could enter into the food chain by mixing up with the groundwater,” Rahman said.

In his report, Rahman concludes, “The health of indigenous people around uranium mining areas is more vulnerable in spite of the fact that their economic and educational status is better as compared to reference villages.” When I asked him whether he could scientifically establish that a causal connection between the diseases the villagers’ exposure to radiation, he declined, but emphasised the necessity for “an advanced study of the health status of indigenous people based on the research inputs in his recommendations.”

The quantity of uranium ore processed at the Jadugoda mill also raises important concerns regarding the plant’s capacity to store the nuclear discharge. According to the UCIL’s annual report for 2015–16—the latest report available on its website—the Jadugoda mill records 80-percent utilisation of a total capacity to processes 2,500 tonnes of uranium ore every day, and the Turamdih mill operates at full capacity, processing at least 3,000 tonnes per day. The waste from the process is stored in the three tailings ponds, which are identified as the stage-I, stage-II and stage-III ponds. The annual report notes, “The stage-I and stage-II tailing ponds are completely filled and stage-III is expected to be full within 1 year for which additional impoundment facility is proposed to be created.” The report further notes that the fourth tailings pond is being constructed at a cost of Rs 2113.81 lakh.

But Birulee told me that all three tailings ponds were full and that the UCIL was extending the first tailings pond and calling it the fourth-stage tailings pond. My visit to the site confirmed that Birulee’s observation was accurate. Birulee explained how the tailings would get carried in the storm with the help of an analogy—he gestured to a glass of water that I was holding and said, “This glass is filled right now, what would happen if we add more water?”

Birulee also said that the UCIL was not allowed to fill the tailings ponds to the brim, and that the pond could be filled till a maximum of 1.5 metres below the top. I could not verify this independently—but I could not find any specifications for the design of the tailing ponds in any of the existing legal framework prescribing nuclear safety in India. None of the acts or rules that appeared relevant—including the Atomic Energy (Working of the Mines, Minerals and Handling of Prescribed Substances) Rules of 1984, the Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules of 1987, and the Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules of 2004—prescribed a procedure for the maintenance of tailings ponds. The UCIL’s study paper did not mention the level till which tailings could be stored in the pond either.

The UCIL has not taken accepted reports about the apparent health hazards resulting out of the mining activities. In the company’s “Myth of UCIL” web page, it notes that studies and reports addressing the concern “mention stories of human interest invariably spiced with melancholy and drama using telling pictures of human sufferings to condition the viewer.” It further reads, “The disease prevalent in the villages around the UCIL workings are not due to radiation but attributed to malnutrition, malaria and unhygienic living conditions etc.”

On my return from Jaduguda, I had filed two RTI applications, with the DAE and the Ministry of Environment and Forest seeking information concerning the uranium mining and level of radiation in the area, its effects on the health of the local indigenous people, and the status of the necessary safety clearance for the mine. In the application, I enquired about the radiation level at the ground level and in the groundwater within a two-kilometre radius of the uranium mines and tailing ponds. The UCIL did not answer the query, but instead, responded stating that “such surveys are also conducted by the Health Physics Unit and Environmental Survey Laboratory of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai.”

The company also stated that it conducted its last medical survey in May last year. The survey data that the company provided showed that the UCIL found no case of congenital conditions, tumours, leprosy or respiratory diseases. It listed 18.49 percent cases of residents afflicted with skin diseases, 22.69 percent cases with musculo-skeletal diseases, 20.17 cases of anemia. A little over 28 percent of cases were recorded as “unknown diseases.”

The nuclear physicist Gadekar told me that during his survey he had come across a strange phenomenon—the company’s medical records showed a large number of cases of tuberculosis. “But I didn’t believe it was tuberculosis at all,” Gadekar added. He said he had reached this conclusion because all the miners who were allegedly suffering from TB had told Gadekar that they had it for a long time. “TB is a disease that will heal if one takes medicine regularly,” Gadekar said. “It can’t prolong forever.”

He added that he found it surprising that there was no recorded case of silicosis—a lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust, which is a major constituent of sand—even though the miners worked in thick dust of sand and dust at the mines. “My conclusion,” Gadekar said, “was that it was silicosis and not TB.” “The company wasn’t telling them the truth to avoid the medical liability.”

Gadekar also told me that more than the radiation, it was the “irresponsible behavior” of UCIL that was hazardous to the local population. He said, “UCIL often throws the rocks, which are extracted during uranium mining, in the open. People carry these rocks and use them in the construction of their houses.” He added that a house constructed with such material may have concentrated radon gas, which can, over a period of time, enter the human body during regular breathing and cause cancer.

The government appears to be echoing the UCIL’s response to the findings of independent studies. In Lok Sabha, this February, Mausam Noor, a member of parliament from West Bengal, asked the government whether it had received any reports about “radioactive slurry being stored in the open causing health hazards to people residing in adjacent areas of uranium mines.” Jitendra Singh, the minister of state (personnel, public grievance & pensions) of the PMO, replied: “No report on health hazards to people on account of uranium tailings management has been received.”

The perception among the villagers was starkly different. I spoke to families in at least 15 houses in Tilaitand and everyone said that they wanted uranium mining to be stopped in the village. I visited the house of Sona Majhi, a resident of the village, where five other housewives had also gathered to discuss their problems. The wells at their houses, Majhi said, were open and their main source of water for bathing and washing clothes. “Lekin jab jab toofan aata hai, pura kuaan dushit ho jata hai”—But whenever a storm comes, the well gets polluted, she added.

Kiran Sardar, one of the women at Majhi’s house, spoke with concern about the young children who played in the area. “They play outside whole day, and for two–three days after a storm, they come home covered in uranium dust.”

Several villagers from Tilaitand told me that the UCIL had provided piper water supply to the nearby village of Chatikoocha and employment for its residents. Chatikoocha was a small village with less than 50 families, situated around one kilometre from Tilaitand and the tailings pond. A playground where youths played cricket lay near the bottom of the structure. At Tilaitand, the villagers told me that the residents of Chatikoocha were happy with the company due to the perks it had received. But the Chatikoocha residents told me a different story.

Salika Murmu, the sarpanch of Chaatikoocha, had three sons who were employed with the UCIL—two of them worked as mining labourers, and the third had an “office job,” which did not require him to enter the mines. Murmu was one among numerous residents of the village who were opposed to the UCIL’s mining activities in the area. He said, “Yahan kaise rahenge, aap hi bataiye na”—How can we live here, you tell me. “Baal baccha sab ko bhi baad mein bimari hoga ki nahi”—All my children will contract diseases later, wouldn’t they?

Though Chatikoocha’s villagers received water supply and jobs from the UCIL, none of them appeared happy about the company’s activities. According to Murmu, the water supplied by the UCIL could not be used for cooking or for washing clothes, because it would not froth with soap. He added, “Nuclear dust covers up the entire village every summer, and during the rainy season, the slurry seeps into the water and flows through the village street.” At least ten residents of the village villagers I spoke to said they either wanted the mines to be shut down or for the residents to be rehabilitated far away from the tailings ponds and the mines.

The issue of the radiation and its adverse health effects has been raised before the higher judiciary in two separate cases—one before the Supreme Court and another before the Jharkhand High Court. In 1999, a legal activist BL Wadhera filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court about possible health hazards arising out of nuclear waste in Jaduguda. The case was finally listed for its first hearing in November 2003. Within six months, on 15 April, a three-judge bench, which included the chief justice of India, dismissed the PIL stating that they “did not find any merit in the petition.” The bench placed its reliance on an affidavit filed by the Atomic Energy Commission, which, the court noted, stated that “adequate steps have been taken to check and control the radiation out of the uranium waste.”

Ten years later, in a ruling relating to iron-ore mining in Goa, the Supreme Court declared that all mining leases across the country that had expired in 2007 but were continuing operations under a “deemed extension” status were illegal. The deemed extension status, under the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Act of 1957, allowed a company to continue mining for a limited period while an application seeking a renewal of its lease was pending. In September that year, the UCIL stopped mining activities in Jadugoda.

The UCIL’s annual report states that the lease was “regularized from 7 December 2015 and mining activities will resume immediately on resolving the pending forest division issue.” On 6 July last year, the environment ministry responded to my RTI application stating that the Jadugoda mine had only received stage-one clearance—the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 mandates a two-stage clearance process for forest clearance, and stage one clearance reflects an in-principle approval of a proposal. Uranium mining has still not resumed in Jadugoda, though milling of uranium ore collected from other mines in the area has continued to take place at the processing plant.

According to the annual report, the company also initiated upgradation work at another mine called Bhatin, in 2015, to achieve higher production, where it will soon operationalise mining activities. The report further notes that five other mines—Narwapahar, Turamdih, Banduhurung, Bagjata, and Mohuldih—had continued operations during the period when mining activities at Jaduguda had been stopped. In this regard, the annual report states, “Production from other units has been increased to partially compensate this loss.” According to the report, the UCIL’s turnover for 2015–16 is Rs 1,01,426 lakh and its net profit is Rs 10,212 lakh.

In 2014, the Jharkhand High Court took suo motu cognisance of the issue following a Hindustan Times report, published in February that year, by the photojournalist Chinky Shukla, titled “Jadugoda: The Nuclear Graveyard.” The court noted that the report showed the “disastrous effect of Uranium Mining Operation photographically.” In this context, the court observed, the right to life and liberty was rendered “lifeless and inactive.”  The court stated that the radioactive waste from the mines had “put around 50 thousand people in Jharkhand’s Jadugora at risk.” It further observed, “The people, mostly tribal community appears to be suffering from serious radiation-related health problems.” As a result of the mining activities, the court noted, the indigenous population was vulnerable to health problems, including congenital deformities, cancer, primary sterility, lung and kidney diseases, and tuberculosis.

Taking these factors into consideration, the court directed the UCIL and DAE to file a reply about measures that the company had adopted for the safety of uranium miners and Jadugoda residents, to “prevent the effect of nuclear radiation,” and for the safe “disposal of radioactive waste.” In August that year, the court directed a team constituted by the UCIL to examine various aspects relating to radiation during mining activities. Though the court ordered for the matter to be listed within three months, it was next heard over a year later—in December 2015, the court heard the case again after taking notice of another news report on the Jadugoda mine.

The court directed the DAE to recommend names of an organisation or an expert body that could act as independent body and conduct a fresh survey on the effects of uranium radiation in Jaduguda. In January 2016, the court appointed a four-member committee to “undertake a fresh survey and submit a detailed report.” The committee’s members, appointed on the DAE’s suggestions, comprised RP Ritolia, the former chairman and managing director of the public sector company Central Coalfields Limited; AR Sundarajan, a former director in the Radiological Safety Division of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB); PC Gupta, a specialist in cancer and genetic abnormality; and PK Parhi, the deputy general manager of mines at the UCIL.

The ability of the committee to function independently is questionable. Sundarajan had been a member of AERB, the country’s nuclear monitoring authority, for 14 years; at time of his appointment, Parhi was an employee of the UCIL, and Ritolia was an employee of the central government. Birulee, the president of JOAR, told me that he did not trust the committee to have acted independently. “Sab jhoot hai”—It’s all a lie, he said. “Wahi log khud hi court jaatey hai, khud hi jaanch kartey hain aur khud hi nyaay sunate hain”—The same people go to court, conduct their own enquiry, and then deliver justice themselves.

In April that year, the court granted the committee a three-month extension to file their report and appointed Krishna Murari, an advocate, as the amicus curie to the high court. Murari became second amicus curie in the case after the first amicus, Ananda Sen, became a judge. When I spoke to Murari in July last year, he told me, “I wasn’t at the helm of affairs.” “I didn’t work on that case for a long time,” he added. Murari told me that the committee had submitted its report soon after he was appointed to be the amicus curie in the case. “There was no time to understand the report,” he said. When I asked him whether he had visited the area, Murari responded, “I was not required to go to the field.”

But in its final order, the court had placed reliance upon Murari’s assurance to the court that “the report indicates the situation by and large satisfactory.” The court also took note of eight recommendations made by the committee, which included strengthening the fencing around tailings ponds, effective maintenance of the pipelines from the mill to the ponds, and spreading awareness about the concerns of radiation at health camps. It directed the UCIL to implement the recommendations, emphasising that the awareness camps should be held on a quarterly basis, and held that the “petition stands wrapped up.”

The residents of Tilaitand told me that the health camps were conducted once in a year. However, Jitendra Singh, the minister of state in the PMO, submitted before the Lok Sabha in February 2017 that 43 medical camps had beenreconducted in Jaduguda since September 2016.

When I spoke to the committee member Sundarajan in June last year,he dismissed all the reports about the adverse effect of nuclear radiation and uranium mining in Jaduguda. He rejected them as “propaganda being spread by certain media with vested interest.” Sundarajan told me that in an experiment conducted on animals, it was seen that out of 10 million animals, only 1 percent of them contracted cancer when they were subjected to uranium radiation that was ten times higher than the level of radiation near the tailing ponds.

Instead, Sundarajan attributed the diseases afflicting Jadugoda’s residents to their “economic backwardness, smoking habits and malnutrition.” He added that the uranium mining in the area brought economic prosperity to the villagers because it offered employed to them and better services.

Sundarajan also denied that the radiation was a reason that led to the congenital deformities among the villagers. He said radiation cannot cause deformity and said that they were “genetical.” PC Gupta, the committee member who was a specialist in genetic abnormalities, told me that he had come across some cases of congenital deformities in the UCIL hospital in Jadugoda. But he added, “I believe these patients were brought from outside.” Gupta continued: “At no point of time did the committee find radiation levels higher than normal anywhere in Jaduguda.”

When I asked Rahman, the secretary of the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, about Gupta and Sundarajan’s denial of health hazards in Jadugoda, he responded with a smile and said, “Poverty doesn’t cause deformities.” Rahman added, “This is understandable that they’re in a mode of denial. They’ve been in a mode of denial for ten years.”