Interview: Xavier Dias on Uranium Mining in India

Xavier Dias is the spokesman of the Jharkhand Mines Area Co-ordination Committee (JMACC), a coalition of over 50 organizations of the peoples’movement across the mining belt.

He is the Editor of the Hindi monthly

‘Khan Kanij aur ADHIKAR’ [Mines,Minerals & Rights],

India’s only community newspaper focused on the effects of mining,

(Interviewd by Anamika Badal)

Q) You have spent many decades in the tribal regions of Jharkhand and are leading the movement against the many mining projects here. From the perspective of Uranium mining, have you seen any changes at Jaduguda or Narwapahar?

First JMACC has named this area where DAE mines and processes uranium as Nuclear Industrial Complex or NIC. It was hitherto referred to as Jadugora. Today, it is a chain of uranium mining and its allied units and should be seen so.

In terms of growth of the industry, it has grown manifold. In terms of the power of DAE, UCIL and BARC they continue to get the treatment of a Czar from the Government of India.

In terms of awareness of the local people, now, they for sure know of the impact of radiation on the quality and longevity of their lives.

In terms of Mobilization and Organization, yes the people are fighting back – they are strong.

We must acknowledge that in the past fifteen years when the Peace debate in the country was limited to the option between nuclear energy v/s nuclear bombs, it was the Adivasi people of this region that took the debate to a higher level by demanding that uranium mining should be the essential part of the debate. For the nuclear cycle begins at the uranium mine pit.

Secondly, it should also be clear that the lives people of this NIC region have been compromised. Their death certificates have been written, some even before they are born. It is these people who instead of crying victim are fighting for it to be known to the world that low levels, internal radiation is a killer – not only bombs and reactors.

This in a nutshell is the situation of a struggle that has been going on since the mid ‘80’s.

Q) Uranium mining has a huge health effect on the lives of people. Radioactivity and cancer is an added dimension to the mining of uranium which is not present in, say, coal mining. Is your organization doing anything different for the locals in these areas?

JMACC is an alliance of organisations of people impacted by mining. It is the victims’ organization at NIC that is at the forefront and all credit should go to them.

Second, let me say that radiation not only occurs in uranium mining but also copper, silver, gold and even coal. Fly ash from coal plants contains radioactive particles in concentration so the effects are also significant.

In order to answer the main part of your question: What the organisations are doing?

I think we have to first understand what needs to be done. It is my opinion that large parts of Singhbhum East district of Jadugora and its neighboring Orissa are affected with the different radioactive particles emitting the three varieties of radiation as they mutilate each second. NIC should therefore be declared an ecological disaster area out of bound for all human habitation. It should be sealed off and declared a ‘sacrificed country’.

As the city of Jamshedpur and its 400+ industries including TISCO and TELCO comes within the affected area they all need to be shut down. This will include the rerouting of the Howrah – Mumbai main railway line.

This is what is needed to be done. But if you expect the country now in its ‘growth economics’ euphoria to listen to a bunch of Adivasis and relocate one of the major Industrial hubs of the country, we are looking for a miracle. The Adivasis of this region – through their different organizations are seeing the writing on the wall and are waving the red flag. It is for the mainstream citizens to realise the danger and amplify what they are saying. I will put the responsibility on the House of Tata’s as they have the power and the capacity to employ the scientists to study the problem. Our civilization has not as yet reached the stage where we can distinguish between sanity and insanity.

The organisations are using the power of their powerlessness to fight and yes, I feel that they have done well to contest the power of the DAE. It is they who have exposed DAE Internationally as an unscientific, inhuman and a callous institution. A significant achievement indeed!

Q) The NPCIL says that there are “safe doses” of radiation and that “background radiation” is not harmful. Do you agree? Can you share your observations at Jaduguda and its vicinity?

If Nuclear Scientist were an honest lot, then it is they who should answer the question. But since they have been deceitful, we lay people; have got to decide this for ourselves. To answer your question on background radiation: As we understand it, background radiation is the radiation that occurs naturally in a place. The larger problem is anthropogenic radiation, or that caused by the interaction of mankind.

The Indigenous people of the world were well aware of the consequences of background radiation. We have the cave paintings of them in present day Australia where radiation from uranium has been identified as a serpent. Their oral traditions – some centuries old – tell them “keep it in the ground”. Then we have the ancient Kings of Africa who sent their wives to live in areas where uranium exists today as a birth-control method. I have personally heard stories from the people of Meghalaya that those who spend time in the areas where uranium exist go mad. They even told me that they say a staff member of DAE during the excavating period go mad and dancing naked there.

If this scientific knowledge on background radiation was available to the Indigenous communities across the globe and if our today’s scientist choose to ignore and deny it; what more can we say? The Chairman of Atomic Energy in the mid 1990’s at an international conference in London went to the extent of saying that ‘radiation is good for health’. We have many cases of such unscientific speak by our scientist.

If the nuclear scientists are deceiving us, then to whom should we go to find out the facts about ‘safe doses’?

The radiation issue at a uranium mine is not the same as that of Fukushima or Chernobyl. In a uranium mine we have microscopic particles of alpha and beta radioactive particles entering the delicate tissues of the body like the lungs and kidneys. There they start to bombard the body tissues with radiation causing the DNA in the cells to go erratic. They signal the cell to either stop multiplying or reproducing or to rapidly do so. In both cases, the result is an abnormal growth of cells which is cancer.

What this means is that once you have has ingested these radioactive particles, they continue to irradiate your body even when you leave the area. The half-life of these radioactive particles can be 80,000 years.

Studies done in Jadugora in 2000 by Dr. N. K. Upadhaya have shown that there is a dramatic decrease in the bio-magnification of microbes in the water system there. Different other health studies too say the same. The people are suffering gravely.

Q) Fukushima has made the world focus on accidents at nuclear power plants – at reactors. Yet, the problems are far more severe at the mining level. Why has this issue not been consistently highlighted by NGO’s – there is practically zero awareness about this issue outside the affected areas?

I will first point my fingers at the Peace or anti-Nuclear movement. The issue of radiation at uranium mines was never part of their debate. I feel that this is because uranium mining is not done where the debaters live. It was the world’s Indigenous people who insisted on it being on the table of the debate and ever since the issue is being discussed.

That answers your question about NGO’s highlighting the issue. A good number of anti-nuclear groups have not discussed the issue of different kinds of radiation in our daily lives. Take for example the exposure to radiation for those frequently flying in aircrafts. In the ‘80’s Air India had advised all their cabin crew to avoid reproducing during the period they fly – To wait for a year of no flying and then reproduce. Why was this instruction given? Because depleted uranium is used in the construction of aircrafts. This means that passengers and crew are subject to continuous low level of radiation. We can say the same for X-ray machines. Alice Steward was one of the first scientists to do a twenty year long survey on adult cancer patients. She found out that patients who were exposed to X-rays in their fetus stage ran a 25% greater risk of cancer. The industry went all the way to discredit her. Well, we now use Ultrasound on fetuses but what about those being exposed to X-rays?

Take levels of radon in our houses in urban areas. Many stone buildings in the West have been closed down as they give off radon. Radon is the only radioactive element where pro and anti nuke scientist are on agreement on that is it carcinogenic. Granite stone is a radon producer. Yes we have so many houses built of granite or use granite chips for reinforced concrete or for the production of floor tiling. Radon being heavier than air stays at the floor level and gets ingested by crawling children etc. It has no color or smell and goes directly to damage the kidneys. Has any one in India done a study on this?

More so it is not the job of civil society organisations or NGO’s to do this. It is the job of the Government of India. It should be the job of the Atomic Regulatory Board ARB. The Nuclear Industry is so powerful that it controls and subverts this important democratic right of us in India.

Q) The mainstream media has completely taken a pro nuclear / pro establishment stand on the nuclear energy issue, failing to objectively cover the issues. How do the regional language media react to issues of uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal?

I would credit the Hindi media with exposing this better than the English media. This could be because the vested interests are not that much frightened about the Hindi media as it does not reach the corridors of power.

However UCIL (Uranium Corporation of India Ltd., A subsidiary of BARC) now has got media savvy in NIC. They now cultivate the Hindi press. Though this has been on the issue of land acquisition and workers rights, I am sure that the DAE will soon move into the propaganda levels of the English press by trumpeting that ‘radiation is good for health’

Q) The situation with Jaduguda is peculiar because the government is flouting all its laws – Brazenly. The whole operation is happening with the obvious support of The Central government. There is no watchdog.

Who have you turned to? Have the courts given any positive aid to curtail this horror?

There are two issues here. One is the livelihood right of people whose lands are being usurped by DAE like NIC and Koodankulam et al, the other is the question of the Nuclear Industry itself.

As far as the livelihood rights go, the movement in NIC does not place any confidence in the State and its judiciary and legislative or administration. These Institutions ultimately go by the fake line that DAE is for ‘National Interest’ as well as the other false claim that nuclear energy will solve the countries’ energy crisis. See how civil rights and breach of the law is being committed in Koodankulam at this moment. Can we ask the organization there to have faith in the State?

The other sub issue to the above is the character of DAE. Unlike any other institution in this country, DAE is the spoilt brat of the Indian diaspora of Institutions. I call them Czars and I see them behaving like Czars. Remember DAE and all its institutions are legacies of turnkey projects of the former USSR.

The second issue is the global Nuclear Industry v/s Energy demands. Before Fukushima -if you observe – there was a race to capture the global energy markets. Nuclear industry was competing with Coal and both were competing with Oil and Gas. All these BIG money sectors went all out to stifle the renewal energy sector. There is a big big game being played globally. At the shit end of the stick are the victims of NIC and Koodankulam and other peoples whose livelihoods is being usurped for the growth of the nuclear sector and the renewal energy sector. We are living under the dictatorship of capital nothing else and governments and sovereignty are no entities within this debate.

See the present situation in Japan. The government there has kept vital information from its citizens regarding the Fukushima disaster. Japan in my opinion, has the highest number of people aware about the radiation issue. The people there have come on the streets to fight it. Yet the government is going against their will. For me this is a classic case of understanding the absolute power of capital and how it functions as a dictator to undermine democracy.

Q) When UCIL started operations here, the tribal and locals had no knowledge about the health hazards. Has this changed in the last few years? How much has the awareness helped – if at all?

One of the early things we as an Organisation did was to interview the mid-wife of that area. She told us that now (1992) she is seeing an increase in miscarriages, deformations, spontaneous abortions etc. She blamed the evil spirits for this. Evil spirits was also the general opinion of many of the victim’s families then. Within less than a year through various campaigns the Organisation managed to change the thinking of the people there and soon the people were able to see radiation and UCIL as the main cause of their plight.

Today, I can say with conviction that on radiation health hazards the people of NIC are more knowledgeable than the scientist of DAE. I fully understand that in a racially biased society, where the Adivasis have been seen as ‘less human’ that we in India live in this will be seen as blasphemy.

I also give credit to the people of NIC for persistently exposing the effects of low dose radiation to the world. There are video productions, their stories, their methods of organizing and their support to people endangered by uranium mining and nuclear plants – not only in India but globally too has been significant.

Q) Anyone opposing Nuclear (Weapons or Energy) is labeled by the government as a foreign funded anti national. Hundreds of cases of sedition are lodged against the people of Koodankulam. You yourself have been called questionable names such as Naxalite. What is your advice to activists who are against this preposterous nuclear game and are hounded by the establishment?

I consider my involvement in the issue as minimal and therefore do not think that I can give anyone advise.

What I would like to say is that even though I have not visited areas where struggles are going on against nuclear plants, I salute each and every activist and the struggling masses there. They are our prophets of today and the wisdom they are producing with becomes the topics for history books of the future.

The Nuclear Industry cannot be seen in isolation of the route the present global economy is taking. Globalization or free market economics or neo-liberal economics has created an economy where finance capital has become an industry in itself. Money is producing money and not jobs or products for human and ecological sustainability. The core of this market is the defense industry. Uranium and other radioactive minerals are therefore at the core of the minerals needed. We are told little of the amount of radioactive weapons used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

All this goes to the militarization of all economies. It is for this reason that the struggles at NIC as well as Koodankulam & Jaitapur are vital. For, they are attacking the core of an economic system that has gone berserk. For this reason it is very important for our anti-nuke organisations and leaders to emphasize these linkages.

At the same time it is also very important for those mass organisations fighting land grab by the Industrialist, or those fighting for Human Rights or those fighting for Ecological Justice to see linkages and therefore the importance of them understanding and offering solidarity to the struggles of one another.

Q) The Jadugora and the Narwapahar mines are not going to close anytime soon. What is the ONE thing you would like to be done to mitigate the situation?

DAE should be called to account for its callous behavior and practices. I would also like the socially concerned people of this country to look at the ground situation as it is. Now, what is the ground situation? In the past year and a half we have seen in Tunisia and a week ago in Israel, individuals taking the most drastic step of immolating themselves to get the attention of the public and the ruling classes to their problems.

I would like the people of India to see that at NIC; at least a million people are being immolated in slow motion. If we all see the situation from this fact then we all would put much more to fight Koodankulam, Jaitapur etc. I am sorry that regarding NIC it is too late for any mitigation. Listen to the words and cave paintings of the Indigenous peoples thousands of years ago – KEEP URANIUM IN THE GROUND.

Q) Are the people in Jharkhand aware that the uranium mining is directly and indirectly contributing to the nuclear Weapons program and not for a ‘peaceful’ energy program?

Yes. They are very much aware. During the Kargil war, there was even talk that Jadugora would be a target to be bombed.

The Adivasis are a peace loving people and have never used violence. Within the organization, they have also discussed the matter very much and have at different times demanded that minerals (all minerals) from their homeland should not be used for killing people.

Q) Most reports about the Jaduguda mines have focused on the immediate mine area. However, given that the ore and the waste are transported over 1000km to Hyderabad and back, have other areas of Jharkhand been affected and to what extent?

As there is no dosimetric study done on this question, the answer is not known. We can only extrapolate. Transportation of radioactive material is not taken seriously in this country. We do not have specially made transport vehicles for this purpose as is the case in Germany or Japan. When the yellow cake is transported to Hyderabad it goes in the same railway rake carrying lime for domestic house painting and red chillies to Andhra. Therefore, these materials are all irradiated when they enter the homes and food of thousands of people. These wagons are kept at different railway junctions and stations. Laborers are affected; passengers who use those stations are affected. It is a very serious matter and AERB has said or done nothing about it. We need much more mass awareness in this country on the issue. There is a lot more to be done. Those nationalist euphoric individuals in this country are not only acting on the basis of ignorance but in a way they are at the same stage of thinking when the people of NIC were saying that it is the evil spirits who were eating their babies.

Radiation of this type is a slow killer. It weakens our gens and therefore those irradiated will be producing a generation who will be weaker, chances of them getting cancer will be higher. I think we all are already in this stage.





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