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Uranium radiation endangering lives in Meghalaya say villagers

Published by MAC on 2002-10-03

Uranium radiation endangering lives in Meghalaya say villagers

By Syed Zarir Hussain, Indo-Asian News Service

Domiasiat (Meghalaya), Oct 3 2002

Emission of radioactive uranium is posing serious health hazards, endangering lives of hundreds of tribal villagers in the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya, community leaders say.

"A number of children have died of mysterious diseases and many villagers are suffering from tuberculosis-like-symptoms and asthma due to uranium radiation," Hopingstone Lyngdoh, a legislator and president of the Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP), told IANS.

"Both the elderly and young are affected. Doctors are confused in most cases."

A majority of the tribal Khasi villagers in and around Domiasiat, a nondescript hamlet 135 km west of Meghalaya capital Shillong, complain of similar ailments - dry cough coupled with severe chest pain.

There could be up to 30,000 people spread over 25 villages in the vicinity of Domiasiat.

The mystery diseases, locals say, started showing up soon after miners began exploring a 10-square km area in Domiasiat for the yellowcake, sometime in 1991.

"There were no such diseases prevalent among the locals in the area prior to the mining operations," the legislator said.

Domiasiat is a part of the Nongstoin assembly constituency represented by Lyngdoh, who belongs to the ruling coalition government in Meghalaya.

However it is yet to be proved if the diseases are due to radioactive radiation.

According to surveys by India's Atomic Energy Department, there could be up to 10,000 tonnes of uranium in Domiasiat - by far the largest and richest sandstone-type deposits available in the country.

The ores are spread over a mountainous terrain in deposits varying from eight to 47 meters from the surface.

After initial operations, the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) was forced to wind up mining in the mid-90s following a string of violent opposition from villagers and other pressure groups.

Fifty-year-old John Lyngdoh has been down with an undiagnosed disease for five years - severe cough with pain in his ribcage forcing him to spend sleepless nights.

His wife Paula and two teenaged sons also suffer from similar symptoms - unbearable chest pain and dry cough.

"Doctors had given anti-tuberculosis drugs, pain killers, medicines for asthmatic attacks and what not. But we continue to suffer," said John, a farmer.

Uranium is an important mineral ore for making nuclear weapons, with experts saying the untapped reserve at Domiasiat could be a potential resource for India's nuclear research programme.

"Some international agencies and vested interests are spearheading a movement against development of the area, spreading stories of radiation in the area not based on scientific studies," complained Swapnesh Kumar Malhotra, head of AED's public awareness division, in Shillong.

A team of scientists from AED and the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (BARC) held a series of lectures last week in Shillong, trying to allay fears about uranium radiation.

"We would create scientific awareness and prove that mining does not affect the local people in and around Domiasiat," Malhotra said.

New Delhi has promised an economic development package in the area - construction of roads and bridges and offering jobs for locals if the project, codenamed 'Doctor', was allowed to continue.

"We cannot allow our people to die. What is the use of jobs and development if all the people in the area becomes sick?" asked Robert Marbaniang, a community elder.

"Humans apart, we have seen many cattle and poultry in the area dying, besides numerous instances of both pet and stray dogs' suddenly turning mad and biting people like crazy."

Some villages have warned of violent protests if mining was resumed.

"Instead of pumping in millions of rupees in the destructive nuclear cycle, by digging up yellowcake for nuclear weapons, the Indian government should look into the basic needs of its citizens - more than half of whom live in poverty," said Wanton Silliang, a young man.

(c) Indo-Asian News Service

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