MAC: Mines and Communities

India's Uranium Boss Says Deformed Children May Be 'Imported'

Published by MAC on 2014-07-26
Source: Bloomberg, Deutsche Well

UCIL's Jadugora operations comprise one of the most egregious scandals of the many to be found in India - and they go back generations.

Previous article on MAC: India: To 'light up' our homes, some lives are falling into 'darkness'

India's Uranium Boss Says Deformed Children May Be 'Imported'

By Rakteem Katakey and Tom Lasseter


23 July 2014

Confronted with reports villages near Uranium Corp. of India Ltd.'s mines have unusually high numbers of physically deformed people, Chairman Diwakar Acharya said: "I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of those guys are imported from elsewhere, ok?"

A Bloomberg News report on July 9 highlighted the struggles of the locals with disease and early deaths -- and the suspicion they shared with some environmental activists that the health conditions are linked to mining waste.

Acharya dismissed as biased any findings of a correlation between the mines and deformities in nearby villages. Activists and doctors come with an agenda to Jadugora, a town of about 19,500 people in eastern Jharkhand state that's home to the company's main operations, he said in a July 14 interview.

"See, what happens is, you say you are a specialist and you'll come and treat," Acharya said at Uranium Corp.'s headquarters. "But all you do is, you are convinced UCIL is evil and you have come here only with the sole motive of finding reasons which would validate your preconceived notions."

Uranium Corp. sends its security officers to monitor attempts by outsiders to examine villagers, Acharya said, explaining it was a necessary step for collecting information about alleged health problems. He was skeptical when told Bloomberg reporters had met a dozen families stricken by deformities, and in particular reviewed the medical records of four children and interviewed their doctors.

"Maybe," Acharya said. "Your word, my word."

‘Healthier Environment'

Company-backed surveys show that compared with outlying areas, "there's no change in disease pattern around Jadugora," said Acharya, 57, who started at the company as a mine manager in 1988. "If at all, it is better because of the healthier environment here."

Photographs in an Indian newspaper of deformed children in the villages around Jadugora led the Jharkhand High Court in February to demand an explanation from Uranium Corp. and government agencies. The High Court wrote in its order "the health problems related to uranium mining are affecting the indigenous people disproportionately in and around the uranium mining operational area," with as many as 50,000 people at risk. Children living near the mines are "born with swollen heads, blood disorders and skeletal distortions," it said.

Ananda Sen, the lawyer appointed by the court to review the case, said he's considering asking a judicial panel led by the state's chief justice to order an independent inquiry. First, he needs to "study some more on the health aspect and all these things," he said in a July 14 interview.

False Impression

Regarding his theory that disabled people had been brought into the local area to create a false impression, Acharya provided no explanation for why impoverished villagers, many of whom subsist mainly on rice gruel and show signs of malnutrition, would help carry out such a deception.

Uranium Corp.'s tailing ponds, dumpsites containing mildly radioactive waste pumped out of the mines, stretch across 193 acres (78 hectares). The company says the waste is treated to remove contaminants. Some water from the ponds empties into the River Gara, which flows past surrounding villages and is used daily by locals to fish and bathe.

Amitabh Kaushal, who oversees health and family welfare services of the area holding the uranium mines as deputy commissioner for East Singhbhum district, said in May he thought an investigation was warranted. He has since declined to discuss the matter, refusing to be interviewed when approached at his office on July 14.
Opposite View

A 2007 study carried out by a group called Indian Doctors for Peace and Development examined 4,022 households and reached a conclusion that was the opposite of Uranium Corp's: the closer a family lived to the mines, the more likely it was to report having someone suffer from congenital malformation. The doctors' group is an affiliate of the Nobel Prize-winning, Massachusetts-based International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Neither that study nor any other has established evidence of radiation poisoning in the area. Still, a 2008 analysis of the area's water highlighted another possibility: The presence of heavy metals.

Samples analyzed then by the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based environmental research and advocacy group that maintains its own laboratory, found drinking water with mercury levels 200 percent above Indian government limits at the time. Well water in another spot contained lead that was more than 600 percent over the limit, the Centre found. Lead is a byproduct of uranium mining, mercury is not.

Toxic Water

Water collected by a Bloomberg reporter in June from a stream leading out of the tailing pond area contained uranium levels 33 percent higher than World Health Organization drinking water guidelines. While local people don't consume water directly from the creek, the flow may make its way into local wells.

Pinaki Roy, a spokesman for Uranium Corp., said he didn't know of any reports about heavy metals in the area. He declined to elaborate.

Health or environmental concerns aside, India plans to increase nuclear power generation capacity 13-fold to 62,000 megawatts by 2032. Nuclear energy, which is fueled by uranium, accounted for 3.5 percent of the nation's electricity generation last year, Jitendra Singh, an official in India's prime minister's office, said in a written reply to questions in parliament on July 16.

Local Fuel

Of the nation's 20 nuclear reactors currently in commercial operation half are eligible to use imported uranium under International Atomic Energy Agency rules, Singh said. The 10 others use locally produced fuel, he said.

"Energy security based on clean and reliable sources is essential for India's future," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter after meeting government nuclear scientists in Mumbai on July 21. "Nuclear energy has a key role in India's energy strategy."

On the morning of July 13, in the village of Tilaitand outside Jadugora, a group of doctors from Kolkata had set up a medical clinic at a schoolhouse. Villagers queued up at rickety desks and scuffed wooden tables on the school building's porch.

Many weren't sure of their ages; they negotiated guesses with the volunteers taking their information. One 35-year-old woman blamed the deaths of two family members on a witch, according to her survey form. Of 108 patients, 35 reported having skin diseases, organizers said.

Wind and Dust

The village sits adjacent to one of the tailing ponds. On windy days, dust from the pond area settles on people and on open pails of drinking water, said Govind Hansda, a farmer who lives next to the school. Dust is unrelated to the reported health problems, Uranium Corp.'s Roy said.

"The thing is that in this area their sanitary habits are suspect," he said.

A white truck marked "ON SECURITY DUTY GOVT. OF INDIA" and bearing the initials for state-owned Uranium Corp., UCIL, pulled up within minutes of the clinic's opening. A security officer who introduced himself as Khetra Mohan Majhi emerged, opened a green notebook and asked the doctors for their names.

"We just want to know who is here," he said.

Later, a man with a green camouflage ball cap pulled low over his forehead positioned himself next to where villagers were giving their names to a volunteer. The man cupped a small piece of paper in his hand and, looking over the volunteer's shoulder, took down each detail. He ran away when he saw a reporter pointing a camera in his direction, jogging around the corner and pedaling off on a bicycle.
Secret Guard

Interviewed later, he first said he was a member of the group that helped organize the clinic, Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation. After being told by a reporter that none of the organizers knew him, he said he was Gurcharan Munda, 24, a security guard for Uranium Corp. Munda said he was ordered by one of his supervisors to gather the clinic participants' names.

The security presence wasn't meant to deter attendance at the clinic, Acharya said, adding he doesn't condone his employees operating "stealthily."

"Not intimidation -- no, no, no -- we want to know what is happening around here," he said.

The documentation the company submitted to the Jharkhand High Court focused on community-level studies, not individual cases. In the past five years or so there have been "five or six or seven children" whose cases were featured in media reports, said Roy, the company spokesman.
Ordinary Problems

The company had them checked by doctors, who found they were suffering from a range of ordinary medical problems and malnutrition, he said. As for health problems linked to the company's operations, Roy said, "there hasn't been a single detected case, per se."

"Supposing tomorrow, somebody turns up and says -- X, Y, Z -- these four guys have deformities because of radiation --we'll go to them," Acharya said. "We have done, in each such case in the past. We have sent a medical team, a radiation expert -- they have gone, found out, measured the radiation level around their individual houses, tried to conclude what is the disease and why. We'll do that again."

In every case, Acharya said, Uranium Corp. has been vindicated.

India's uranium mines expose villages to radiation

Sanjay Pandey

Deutsche Welle

25 June 2014

India plans to source a quarter of its energy from nuclear power by 2050. But this ambitious goal could come at a cost. Radioactive waste from uranium mines in the country's east is contaminating nearby communities.

It's a hot summer afternoon in Jadugoda, a small town in eastern India. Four women wearing saris sit in a circle in front of a mud house, with smooth white walls and pink borders decorated with small shards of mirror.

Nearby, a woman pumps up water from a tube well. She then beats a miner's uniform that belongs to her brother. He works nearby, in the uranium mines.

Suddenly a gust of wind blows black dust from the mines into the courtyard. The women cover their faces and rush to cover the pots of water so they don't get contaminated.

Local activist Kavita Birulee says the villagers here are terrified of the radioactive waste. In Jadugoda, rates of cancer, miscarriages and birth defects are climbing. Birulee says she herself was thrown out of her home after suffering two miscarriages.

"My husband abandoned me. I was called a baanjh, which means sterile or infertile. I was dragged out of my in-laws' house," she said. "Uranium waste has ruined my life. This has made us social outcasts. Now, people are hesitant to marry their boys to Jadugoda girls."

Health-related deformities

Just 40 years ago, Jadugoda was a quiet and lush green locality with no dust or radiation pollution. The people here lived a quiet rural life. But things changed when the Indian government started mining operations here in 1967.

Radioactive waste generated by three nearby government-owned mines has caused serious health-related problems in Jadugoda. The mines belong to Uranium Corporation of India Limited - or UCIL. They employ 5,000 people and are an important source of income for villagers in this relatively remote area. But the waste has put 50,000 people, mostly from tribal communities, at risk.

A recent study of about 9,000 people in villages near the mines has documented cases of congenital deformities, infertility, cancer, respiratory problems and miscarriages.

Nuclear scientist Sanghmitra Gadekar, who was responsible for conducting the survey on radioactive pollution in villages near the mines, says there was a higher incidence of miscarriages and still births.

"Also, laborers were given only one uniform a week. They had to keep on wearing it and then take it home. There, the wives or daughters wash it in a contaminated pond, exposing them to radiation. It's a vicious circle of radioactive pollution in Jadugoda," he said.

Social tensions on the rise

Besides health problems, the unsafe disposal of radioactive waste has given rise to new social divisions in the tribal heartland. Women from the Ho, Santhal, Munda and Mahali tribes, for example, are both sick and socially excluded. Jadugoda girls, who were married in far off places, are being abandoned by their husbands.

UCIL, for its part, has never admitted that there is any radiation pollution in Jadugoda. Instead, the company says they have raised the standard of living in this area. UCIL corporate communications head, Pinaki Roy, said that uranium ore found in Jadugoda is of low grade.

According to the Department of Atomic Energy, the plant needs to process 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds) of ore to extract 65 grams (2.3 ounces) of usable uranium. This produces large amounts of radioactive waste when it is mined.

'What other option do we have?'

Worker safety is also a serious challenge. UCIL does provide safety gear, but not enough information about exposure, critics say. So, when workers return home, their families are exposed to radiation.

"There have been several problems. Everybody suffers from gastro-enteritis here," a worker told DW on the condition of anonymity.

"We know about the hazards of working in uranium mines," he said. But people here are still willing to risk their lives to make a living, he explains.

"Which one is more dangerous, death by starvation or death due to illness?" he asked.

"Disease will kill us slowly, but how many days can you survive without food? If we don't work in these mines, what option do we have?"

Grim future

The mines are on the doorstep of the area's largest city, Jamshedpur. If radiation pollution isn't controlled, more people will be affected in the future. Local officials, however, are proud of their role in India's nuclear defense industry.

Anti-nuclear pollution activist Xavier Dias has been trying to alert locals about the dangers presented by the mines.

"When you are talking about Jamshedpur, you are talking about a thousand ancillary industries, a huge population," he said. "These are dust particles that fly around. They enter the water, the fauna, flora, the food system. And they are killers, but they are slow killers. They kill over generations."

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