What links Japan and Jadugoda

Amitava Kumar | Times of India

I grew up in Patna but the place where I learned to ride a bicycle was Chaibasa. My seventh birthday passed unnoticed because my maternal grandmother had died the previous week, but my parents relented and bought me the promised bicycle. Yesterday, I went back to Chaibasa after more than 40 years.

Jadugoda-2My father was a civil servant who had served for many years in what is now Jharkhand, a place made melodious by the humble poetry of the names of its small towns: Tupudana, Murhu, Kalamati , Chaibasa. When I was a boy, did I ever visit a town called Jadugoda? I don’t now remember whether I did, but on Friday I went to Jadugoda, one-and -a-half hour’s drive away from Chaibasa. The visit robbed me of any shred of nostalgia.

A stocky, soft-spoken man named Ghanshyam Birulee, almost the same age as I am, began telling me a story. His father, a worker in the local uranium mines, had died of lung cancer in 1984. A few years later, in 1991, his mother passed away too. The cause of her death was also lung cancer. His mother’s death confronted Birulee with a question: his mother had never worked in the mines, nor had she even gone there on a visit, how was it possible that she, too, had been affected by the uranium?

Radiation and the diseases that result from it are not common knowledge among the people of Jadugoda. It took Birulee, now an activist with Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation, a lot of time before he hit on the truth. His father would bring back each week the uniform he wore when he worked inside the mine, and his mother would then wash it. The presence of uranium particles on the uniform meant that they emitted radiation. His mother had died from uranium poisoning. From the reading he had been doing Birulee learned about the ugly realities of the nuclear winter in Hiroshima-Nagasaki . And he reached a conclusion : “The problem that is in Japan is also the problem that is in Jadugoda.”

The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), which runs the local mines, has steadfastly denied water contamination or deaths caused by radiation exposure. But various studies conducted over the last few years have shown that contamination from the uranium mine has spread in Jadugoda and the circumference of the tailing ponds (they hold the sludge produced by the mining process) too are polluted with uranium.

In Ichra village close to Jadugoda, a young woman named Budni Oraon takes care of her two younger siblings. Budni is in her mid-20 s. Her younger sister Olabati and their brother Duniya are separated by another year or two. Both Olabati and Duniya are congenitally deformed and mentally disabled.

I met the siblings in their small house in Ichra. The door opened into a room with a bed and a small television set where Hindi film songs were playing. Duniya sat on the floor, moving with the help of his hands, his thin, misshapen legs bent under him. He has large, expressive eyes and I saw that his striped t-shirt said ‘Born to Party.’ Budni, wearing bright clothes and thin silver bracelets around her ankles, talked to me while standing at the threshold under a picture of her deceased father. A little distance away, her mother sat on a bed in the corner, her eyes taking in the scene on television. From time to time, the sound of garbled words and laughter came from an adjoining room. That was Olabati , whom I later met; she was grinning as she lay supine on a sheet on the floor.

What happened to these people? I wanted to ask Budni these questions, but she had more immediate, practical concerns. Both Duniya and Olabati receive Rs 200 each in disability pension each month. But the money isn’t given to Budni or sent by post; the block officer has to physically see the two disabled persons. Budni has to hire an auto-rickshaw and spread a sack on the floor for her brother and sister as they cannot sit up. The expense on the trip to the Block office eats into the small amount of money they receive from the government.

Budni is tall and animated, and has very white teeth. She said, “If I run away one day, who will take care of them?” She pointed to Duniya and said that he couldn’t even drink water by himself. She had to feed, wash, and clothe him. Duniya couldn’t understand the conversation; his eyes were fixed on my face. Budni said, “If I get married and go away, their lives will be destroyed.”

It seemed terrible that anyone should have to make such choices. But Budni could foresee a solution. Could the government provide a fixed ration to its disabled citizens ? Budni felt that if there was such a provision, then anyone taking care of her siblings could cook for them and perhaps eat a small portion themselves.

Finally, it was time for me to put the question to Budni: why are your older siblings physically fit, and why were your younger siblings born disabled? Budni pointed to the road outside. When the road was being built, the paving materials used came from the uranium plant. After the ore had been extracted, UCIL had no use for the crushed stones. It was given free to the government to build roads. Budni said that her mother, first pregnant with Duniya and then with Olabati, worked barefoot on that road as it was being built.

The fate of the people in Jadugoda has been a horrible tragedy, the result of a combination of profits and prejudice. The number of disabled youth in the area far exceeds the average in any other town, at least 100 in a population of around 50,000. But what is to be done now? Ghanshyam Birulee is clear about future goals: rehabilitation for all those affected by uranium poisoning; medical treatment and compensation for the sick; ensure safe mining; and lastly, carry out uranium waste disposal in accordance with international laws.

If these steps are taken, we will have found a more humane and just response to this incredible atrocity. I’m already feeling nostalgic for that future.

Kumar is an author and a professor of English at Vassar College

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