Shameful explotation of uranium workers: adivasis in Turamdih protesting for a week, callous govt unmoved

Anuj Wankhede

The 15th August this year, the military might of the country was on public display at the red fort. Like every year, people were cheering and the Prime Minister waxed eloquent about the progress made by India and catapulted into the super-power club.

On the western border, India and Pakistan are engaged in a fierce covert war having fought overt wars earlier but now threatening each other with nuclear annihilation if….

At the other border, Indian and Chinese troops stand eyeball to eyeball at Doklam ready to fire at each other and fight to finish. Both countries are nuclear weapon superpowers.

The media breathlessly reports all the above.

Meanwhile, at Turamdih in Jharkhand, scores of poor adivasis are on a fast onto death for the past seven days.

Nobody is listening to them.
This is a story nobody is reporting.
But it MUST be told.

As the nation celebrates its status on the basis of being a nuclear armed superpower, keep in mind that the very people who have lost their land and livelihoods have contributed to preserving the land and lives of the whole country.

The country rejoices about the life expectancy going up many times, the uranium workers and their families die of cancer. While infant mortality has drastically gone down in the country, children here are born with severe incurable genetic disorders.

Is this how the people of Turamdih should​ be treated?
What is their fault?

They have given up lands, fallen prey to the jingoistic propaganda by successive governments, believed in false promises and have got death, disease and despair in return.

The nuclear arsenal that the country brandishes needs uranium. And that uranium lies deep underground. It is mined from the deep bowels of Jharkhand, processed and then sent to faraway places in India to be transformed into the shining missiles you see on Independence day and Republic day parades. These are the toys that give Indians a sense of misplaced pride and false bravado. That nuclear weapons should have absolutely no place in any civilized nation is beyond doubt but I do not wish to reopen that argument here. Having said that, the country which is so proud of possessing nuclear weapons, should feel equally ashamed at the way it treats the very people who make it happen.

These are the uranium mine workers in Jharkhand state of India. They are the native owners of the land – adivasis. Once proud owners, now pushed a to the edge of society. These mines are barely ten kilometres away from Tatanagar (aka Jamshedpur) – bastion of corporate behemoth TATA.

For decades the native adivasis of the East Singhbhum district have been exploited – socially, financially, physically, mentally and economically – simply because the land has uranium beneath it.

Uranium found here is of extremely poor concentration compared to what is found in Australia and Canada. Hence, huge amount of mining activity takes place over a wide area to get a miniscule amount of refined uranium. But for India, even this is needed to further it’s weapons program.

Although in the face of it India maintains that all this uranium is extracted and used for its civilian nuclear energy program, the world at large knows the truth. The mining started here in 1968 at neighbouring Jadugora about 15 km from Turamdih. The region surrounding Jadugora bore the brunt of this unscientific, unsafe mining of radioactive uranium. You can read my about it “A Nightmare called Jadugudahere.

Jadugora and it’s surrounding mines were soon insufficient to satiate the greed for more bigger and more dangerous nuclear weapons and the search spread to beyond Jharkhand. The ore was discovered in large quantities in Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya. But learning lessons from Jadugora, the natives of these two states threw out UCIL (Uranium Corporation of India Ltd)

Having been beaten there, UCIL has gone ahead and expanded the mining area around Jadugora and now covers a huge area. Turamdih is bearing the brunt of the dirty tricks of UCIL and the government. Huge tracts of land has been forcibly acquired with unkept promises of rehabilitation and high paying jobs. Neither has the compensation materialized not have the jobs.

A walk through the UCIL townships is an eye opener. The plush UCIL officers’ quarters with the well laid out roads and manicured lawns lull the cursory observer into believing that all is well. Until you walk to through the abject poverty and huts of the surrounding areas. Even the lower ranked staff and worker quarters are ramshackle three storied structures in poorly maintained condition. Water supply for the UCIL comes from a modern filteration plant while the workers have to make do with polluted water. The radioactive waste runoff from the refining plant flows into the man made “tailing ponds” where it is supposed to be held. These are not ponds as the name might suggest but are mini lakes.

Unfortunately, the embankment walls broken and the radioactive waste mixed with the ground water forcing people to use this water for drinking, cooking and washing. This by itself is a crime against humanity and would not be tolerated in any civilized country.

Not that this is unknown. Even before I visited Turamdih in 2013, such breaches had occurred and UCIL has not done anything until the locals led by Arjun Samad had braved torrential rains and stemmed the overflow by putting sandbags and debris. UCIL remained a mute spectator then. It still stands mute, bothered only with its officers while leaving workers at the mercy of this man made disaster. These tailing ponds are full of radioactive sludge and keeps seeping into the ground polluting the ground water and soil far beyond the mines. In absence of security or perimeter fencing, cattle can be found grazing on its embankments.

Numerous studies by Indian and foreign experts at Jadugora have shown how the health problems here are alarming. The government has done nothing except ban or “monitor” the activities of “outsiders” in this region.

The government wants to brush the irregularities and illegalities in uranium mining under the carpet. No information is forthcoming from the Department of Atomic Energy or the Directorate of Mining or UCIL or PMO when asked probing questions. RTI inquires are fobbed off in the name of “national security” Films and documentaries about the state of uranium mining are discouraged from being aired.

The current standoff is for the displaced natives who have (forcibly) “given” their lands for the Turamdih mines but have not been rehabilitated or compensated yet despite years of waiting. The agitation and the indefinite hunger strike is under the banner of JOSH and Turamdih Vistapith Samiti and are being led by the firebrand Arjun Samad.

Arjun has been leading the adivasi struggle for land and employment rights for over half a decade. After promising permanent jobs, UCIL goes back on its promises and at best offers contract work. After spending years as a contract labour, the workers have no social benefits or even pay rise. They are subject to the whims and fancies of the labour contractors. Locals allege and have complained to the highest authorities about the rampant irregularities, corruption and the unholy UCIL-contractor nexus but in vain. If workers raise their voices, they are summarily sacked. About 370 temporary and two permanent workers are currently “idled” without wage and without any reason being given.

The contractor mafia rules here even as UCIL deliberately looks away. Not only do the contractors and security staff harass the workers, they have also setup an illegal checkpoint where every person entering the area has to pay money to pass and take goods. The situation is made worse because both – the UCIL administration as well as the contractors know that they are operating in an officially restricted region and reasonably ”safe” from outsiders.

Six days into the protest, not a single official from UCIL has been to the site nor has any government official or politician visited them. Ironically, on the sixth day, the ruling BJP politicians were barely 2km away from this place for laying the foundation stone of a new industrial project. Yet, these heavyweights quietly gave this agitation a miss. But why blame the successive governments alone, locals here believe that they are too insignificant to move the mighty defence establishment in India, but the one corporate giant who possibly can is silent too – the Tata group. Despite being just a few kilometres away (one can see the Tata factory chimneys from a hillock inside Turamdih) the Tatas too have turned a blind eye to the happenings in their backyard. The Subarnarekha river flows from Jadugora to Tatanagar and is contaminated with radiation. Parts of Tatanagar city which are outside the Tata township use this radioactive laced water. Turamdih meanwhile is an open cast mine (not underground) and frequent heavy blasting occurs there. The blasts carry the radioactive dust into the air and depending on wind direction spreads towards Tatanagar. These are not new revelations and surely the Tata administration must be aware of these dangers. Yet, it chooses silence. A whole lot of the manufacturing and mining of the Tata group happens in Jharkhand. Ironically, TATA Cancer hospitals gives free treatment to those from rare genetic and radioactive disorders but often in vain. Perhaps a thought should be spared about how to stop the disease in the first place rather than belatedly try to cure it. But then commercial interests matter most and running “charitable” hospitals ensures tax breaks and good publicity.

How long will the uranium mine workers have to suffer?

The writer is a Mumbai based independent researcher and has spent time among the mine workers.
He can be reached via email

Deepak Kisku JMACC (Ranchi) has contributed to pictures and video and Arjun Samad with his inputs from Turamdih.

Watch the video of the Turamdih agitation here:

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