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Pressurers on Indian communities over Uranium mining

Published by MAC on 2003-09-06

Pressures on Indian communities over Uranium mining

6 September, 2003

As communities in Andrha Pradesh vigorously debate the pros and cons of uranium mining , so the Indian state company, UCIL, and outsiders have begun buying up land, dividing local people even further. This article, from the Indian Economic and Political provides a commendably clear analysis of the pressures at work, compounded by state discrimination and decades of neglect in providing basic social services to adivasi (tribal) and lower caste villagers

Uranium Mining in Nalgonda Creating Penny-Rich Landless

From The Economic and Political Weekly Commentary

The uranium project being set up close to the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam in Andhra Pradesh will not only occupy vast acreages of agricultural land, but will destroy forest land, the 'buffer zone' of the Rajiv Gandhi Sanctuary. More worrying is the spate of pre-acquisition land transactions that it has prompted. This is resulting in land transfers to outsiders who aim to gain by selling land to the Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) later on, and to access compensations in various forms.

R Uma Maheshwari

A Rs 400 crore project of the Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) comprising uranium mining and processing units is being up at Lambapur and Peddagattu in Nalgonda district, close to the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam. Peddagattu in Nalgonda district will be the site for the underground mining, while open cast mining will be carried out at Lambapur. The mining project will cover, in addition to government lands and private agricultural (and some non-agricultural) lands, 1,104.64 acres of forest land, including the 'buffer zone' of the Rajiv Gandhi sanctuary, known habitat of around 150 bird species of which the Grey Horn Bill (Tockus birostris) and Pea-fowl (Pavo cristatus) are prominent. The core zone of the proposed mining areas falls under Yellapur Reserve Forest, whose vegetation consists mostly of shrubs and bushes. The deadly effects of uranium mining and processing over the area and Hyderabad, barely 100 km away from the zone is the immediate concern.

The issue has prompted a sustained movement led by various people's organisations - Human Rights Forum, Progressive Organisation of Women, Movement against Uranium Project - and concerned individuals who are engaged in creating awareness and eliciting public opinion against the project. So far the movement has focused mainly on the environmental impact of uranium mining on the area. But there are several other concerns that will presently show up in the course of the campaign against the UCIL mega project. One of these is the issue of loss of land, livelihood and food (and other agricultural) production.

There is also a larger dimension that is equally worrying. Namely, the kind of monetary transactions that have begun to take place in the area over sale and purchase of land - especially in Duggyala and Mallapur and a few surrounding villages. Land transaction per se, is not the problem, but the reason behind the sale, and the way in which agriculturists are ready to give up their occupation for a one-time 'bonus' ranging from Rs 50 to 60,000 per acre is worrying. Of land so far sold, many are outsiders who have descended on the villages in the hope of getting compensation and other benefits, especially the promise of 'one job' per family to the project affected families. Surrendering land

While some farmers have retained some part of their land, others have given away all their land. This is mainly in Mallapur and Duggyala. This panic selling and buying has occurred mainly in these two villages, whereas in Peddagattu and Lambapur, the lands (patta and others) have been mostly taken over by UCIL directly. The nature of discourse in these four villages has also been rather different and contrasting. At an environmental public hearing held on August 19 at Peddagattu and Pedda Ariserlapally - in the PApally mandal - the contrast became fairly open. While villagers at Peddagattu and Lambapur had gathered to show their support for the project the odd banner of Uranium Project Sadhana Samiti (essentially, as people say, promoted and backed by the UCIL), shouting down anyone who opposed the project, the people at PApally - from Mallapur and Duggyala - were most vociferous in their protest against the project, shouting slogans intermittently at the public hearing. The hearing that lasted as late as 10 pm (from 4.30 pm) had the UCIL authorities fumbling for answers to all the queries. The contrast is marked because the people in the latter two villages - especially those who sold off their lands in distress - are now having second thoughts about the entire affair, thanks to the movement highlighting the demerits of the same.

But let's take Lambapur and Peddagattu. These were villages settled as an 'aftermath' of the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam - comprising all the oustees of the dam some decades ago. The area is covered by scrubs and bushes - much of the land is forest land and few people have been given pattas. There is no motorable road; there is a small residential welfare school with 200 children who will all stand to lose out on education. The most disconcerting and dehumanising aspect of the whole affair - as in all 'developmental' agendas - is the way in which projects such as these garner support to a people in distress. It is as dehumanising as offering a piece of bread to a hungry person and before s/he reaches out to accept it, lay out conditions on what will make them 'eligible' to eat the same, namely, not to ask questions. It is like feeding poison in bread. And so long as people are denied rights to live a decent life, right to food, education, health and humane existence per se, projects such as these will continue to have divided opinions, even among those in harm's line, where distress is used as a means to achieve foul ends. This process of manufacturing consent will be the mainstay, as a consequence.

In the present case, UCIL has been propagating - for quite a while now - that each family whose land is taken for the project will be ensured a job (of one member of the family) with UCIL. What kind of job, is not mentioned. Considering that the literacy levels are by and large abysmal in these villages, one need not venture too far to guess as the nature of employment. This assurance has led to people from many other districts to scamper for land in the 'survey area' and land prices have skyrocketed since the last few months to unimaginable extent. It has also made brokers out of people within the area such as the sarpanch, Sukanya Naidu's husband for instance, who stays in Hyderabad and has managed to mediate the sale of most of the land at Mallapur. It must be noted however, that even prior to this, the Srisailam Left Bank Canal project had created similar situations.

Venkateswarlu Naidu (sarpanch by default - husband of the sarpanch of Mallapur, Sukanya Naidu) has apparently been a major broker. He has helped sell land to the amount of Rs 40 lakh. He stays in Hyderabad and was one of those who went to Jaduguda with the UCIL officials along with others.

Niranjan and Kashiah sold their lands. Niranjan sold 3 acres and Kashiah 2 acres - each for Rs 35,000 and 25,000 per acre - and both the deals were stuck by Naidu. Niranjan says, "My land does not yield much. I have loans to repay. So I sold the land to the sarpanch (i e, the husband). Kashiah says, "I sold land to the sarpanch. We needed money, I had no idea about what the factory will do to us. Some people came here to inform us of the ill effects of uranium, but Madhusudana Rao (chief superintendent mechanical, UCIL) told us not to believe these rumours spread by those who are making money from the issue. Anyway, I installed three bores but got nothing. I lost the entire cotton crop. We lost about 6 acres..." Kashiah and Niranjan add "The sarpanch has bought a new car and stays in Hyderabad. He has made a lot of money."

Naidu in Hyderabad says, "The district registrar told us to encourage the government's proposal. Fifteen and a half acres in Mallapur were sold at Rs 52,000 per acre. Normally it would have sold for Rs 15,000Š. The government will only do things for people - if they use this for a bomb or for making medicines, it is their problem. What can I say? We fought when 1,000 acres of the Left Bank Canal was taken by UCIL. So they are making an alternative channel and a tank. UCIL will now take only the Peddavagu which joins the river Krishna. They told us if the Akkampally sources decrease they will use the Krishna water for processing and grinding."

The area will most certainly be hit by the losses in agricultural produce as Khammampati Venkataiah reveals (who has lost/sold his land too). He used to make approximately Rs 5,000 per annum on one acre of castor; Rs 50,000 per annum per acre for chillies; and Rs 30,000 per annum per acre of cotton in a good monsoon. He will lose all these earnings forever with the one time sale of his land. At the other end of the spectrum land brokers have been negotiating with UCIL in Hyderabad to increase the compensation amount.

At Duggyala and Mallapur in PApally mandal paddy, castor, chillies, jowar and bajra, pulses and citrus fruits are mainly cultivated. The 'mausambi' orchards alone fetch Rs 50,000 per acre per annum, people say. Some 717 acres of unirrigated agricultural land is being marked for the mining at Peddagattu, besides 43 acres of fallow land and 200 acres of this will go for the tailing pond. The UCIL has assured villagers of setting up a 'green belt' in 225 acres (no one knows what kind of 'green belt', however). In the resettlement and rehabilitation plan the UCIL gives the following figures - a one-time compensation of Rs 25,000 per acre and an additional compensation for the acquired land at Rs 5,000 per acre. The UCIL's total expenditure on R and R will amount to Rs 220.32 lakh; a subsistence plan of Rs 14,400 at the rate of Rs 40 per day only for 360 days for each family of land oustees; a resettlement package of Rs 10,000 for each land unit (for 191 pattadars in Duggyala and Mallapur which means 33 families will get one job each).

Ram Reddy has not sold his land (15 acres) but has been helping others buy land from his village. "I helped some people to buy Venkataiah's land. But that was because he thought it might go under the Srisailam Left Bank Canal (SLBC) project - so that he may settle down. He thought if he bought it now we could sell it for higher rates when it goes under uranium project or he would get a job for someone in his family. Prior to SLBC the land sold at Rs 15,000 per acre - now with the uranium project it will fetch more." Chinnaiah says, "I am ready to sell off my land (12 acres) if it will go under the project - there is no water, no electricity, and no yield. I did the ITI polytechnic course and have no job offers. At least I will get a job to live with dignity." Water will soon be (and has always been) a major contentious issue in these parts. The SLBC Upper bank will be utilised for the uranium processing. One of the channels here meant as irrigation source for the people at Mallapur has been diverted. The UCIL has promised an alternative channel for the villagers to be built in consultation with the irrigation department. The extent of loss on agricultural output (given, of course, a good crop) for PApally (besides the Peddavura mandal) will be significant, with the subsequent loss of livelihood and security. Migrations that have not hit this mandal majorly, are likely to follow. There are 23 villages in the PApally mandal. The total land in PApally mandal is 78,064 acres, out of which 995 acres will be taken over by the UCIL (private land). A large portion of the 995 acres of land for the project (barring forest land) is agricultural land, which is said to be 'non-cultivable'. But the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is silent about how much of agricultural land will actually be affected and what is the definition of 'non-cultivable'. In Duggyala alone, according to a village elder, Vemana Reddy, a good monsoon (or access to water) can yield for the entire village 57 to 70 acres of paddy a year, 1,000 acres of bajra and 50 acres of chillies, and so forth. On the whole, the agricultural yield at PApally mandal is as follows:

Castor (grown in 7,020 acres): average income per year = Rs 3,000 per acre Cotton (5,461 acres): average income per year = Rs 10,000 per acre Jonna (1,743 acres): average income per year = Rs 1,500 per acre Sajja (4,488 acres): average income per year = Rs 1,500 per acre Pulses (tuvar dal) (991 acres): average income per year = approx Rs 5,000 per acre Paddy (1,610 acres): average income per year = in case of two crops (with good monsoon) - Rs 32,000 per acre; in case of a single crop - Rs 16,000 per acre Musambi (3,107 acres: average income per year = Rs 50,000 per acre

According to the mandal revenue office figures of geographical area, Mallapur has 2,243 acres; Duggyala 40,679 acres, Lambapur and Peddagattu 4,682 acres. However, the SC Corporation (Nalgonda) data are different - Mallapur has 907.71 acres, Duggyala 1,893.52 acres and Lambapur-Peddagattu - 1,894.73 acres. The officials cannot tell one why there are two rather different land area figures. According to one of the officials it could be because of the land occupied by the SCs (Scheduled Casts) and STs (Scheduled Tribes).. If that is true - and looking at the population (Census 1991) of the SCs and STs in this area (which is, incidentally, dominated by a minority of upper caste, mainly the reddys) - it is clear who will be displaced and dispossessed on account of the project. The total population of PApally mandal is 6,356, out of which SCs and STs are 3,135. Lambapur comprises only STs (lambadas essentially) and Mallapur has more ST population than SCs. The figures are as follows:

Mallapur (according to the latest records available at the SC corporation Nalgonda) - SC - 70 male and 71 female; ST- 408 male and 384 female; Duggyala - SC 192 male and 196 female; ST - 148 male and 137 female. Lambapur-Peddagattu - ST male - 778, female - 751.

Incidentally, although the records are not immediately available, most of the land sold by the SCs was bought by upper castes from out of the area, say the villagers.

Let's look at some other figures that will clarify where Nalgonda district as a whole stands in terms of basic infrastructure. According to the 2001-02 figures (Directorate of Family Welfare) Nalgonda has only 66 PHCs (Public Health Centres) and three dispensaries. The drop-out rates of school children: among SCs in the district is 64.15 per cent (classes I to VII) and 44.25 (classes I to V). Among STs it is 80.76 and 64.80, respectively. Yet the literacy rate is shown at 54.5 per cent in the rural areas alone. Women protestors beaten

In this context, what is it that needs immediate attention? The significant opposition for the project comes from the women; but there was not one woman (from the villages) who spoke at the Peddagattu public hearing. They were sent away and silenced even before they could raise their voices. In fact, women (and very few men) from Lambapur were beaten up when they came to the hearing with banners stating their opposition. Undaunted, these women and a few men came to PApally to disclose what had happened to them, and to give a requisition to the collector.

What does the UCIL project mean and what are the questions raised by it? The UCIL states in its R and R documents that the project "will have a strong positive employment and income effect, both direct as well as indirect; a number of people shall migrate towards the central region of circle in the years to come; (it will) have positive impact on the consumption behaviour by way of raising average consumption and income through multiplier effect; (and) the project is going to bring about changes in the pattern of demand from food to non-food items if sufficient income is generated." The statement clearly shows the intention - and their intention is proved by what one sees here - that this project, above all, aims to destroy the agricultural sector, which will most adversely affect the SCs and STs; and that this project has never mentioned any kind of 'compensation' for the loss that people will suffer on this account. The movement against the project also needs to address this issue in its campaigns.

The present movement could take - above and beyond the very obvious environmental discourse - a step forward in demanding fulfilment of basic rights of food, land, the direct impact on the scheduled castes and tribes. If a large number of people understand that they have not been given what they were promised time and again and have been constantly displaced and dispossessed, the movement could take a major step ahead. There is also need to bring into the movement the people who have been misled into believing in a change of fortune - which given their circumstances is possible. Somewhere there is need to realise, as one of the human rights activists said, with a hint of gloom after the Peddagattu hearing, "perhaps we have failed them? We have left them on the fringes too?"

But the movement is still 'fresh' and growing; and there is scope for initiating a larger debate and a new discourse on the larger aspects of displacement and about conflict of resources, water and land. What one young man (in favour of the project) said at the public hearing was a sharp reminder of the pathos - "We sacrificed our lands to give water to your cities and to Krishna (delta) and what did we get in return? And now we will lose our lands all over again".

The UCIL mining project is not merely about mining, and the aftermath, but that of a system that has consistently failed the people and ironically builds itself over these failures; for all the families displaced by each project, there is a larger state structure that consistently becomes the 'munificent provider' - in the case of AP, however, this 'munificent provider' also has conditions - the 'user charges'. And how many more people will be rendered as 'unskilled labourers' from being, basically and primarily, food producers and craftspeople?

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