MAC: Mines and Communities

Living Next To India's Uranium Mine

Published by MAC on 2006-05-04
Source: BBC India

Living next to India's uranium mine

Mark Whitaker, BBC News, BBC India

4th May 2006

Despite its achievements, India still can't shake off the problems of poverty, disease and malnutrition. And, as Mark Whitaker's been finding out in the eastern state of Jharkhand, the search for prosperity and progress has its victims too:

Seven-year-old Guria can neither speak nor walk If you met Guria, you would fall in love with her.

Guria is a dark-eyed little girl who lies in the shade of her house on a bed made of rope, waiting for her daddy to come home from work.

She grins as she sees him, and those dark eyes of hers light up. Her father returns her smile as he scoops her up in his arms. But his eyes are filled with tears.

For Guria cannot speak. Nor can she walk. Her hands - if you can call them hands - are bent, and quiver. But her eyes reach out.

Her father pedals a rickshaw for a living. He earns a pittance and tells me he will do all he can to care for Guria, while he is alive. But what will happen when he dies?

Guria is seven years old.

A stone's throw from her house, another girl lies on another rope bed. She is 23.

In many ways, she is like Guria, save for the fact that she seems to be in pain.

She gasps for breath. Her look is anguished, hurt.

She is dressed in a sari, but she never goes anywhere, and has never been anywhere. For 23 years this has been her life.

Village transformed

The parents of these girls are not sure what has caused their daughters' plight. There are around 50 other children in Jaduguda, in India's eastern state of Jharkand, in a similar condition.

But the state-owned corporation responsible for the vast uranium mining complex which dominates the village insists it is not to blame.

Over the past 30 to 40 years, the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) has transformed Jaduguda, bringing jobs, money and housing for the workers.

But its critics say progress has come at a high price.

Many people here saw their land requisitioned when the mines came. Instead of living on it, they must now work beneath it.

Once, these hills were the haunt of bear, elephant and tiger. But no more.

The forest canopy is sparse now, but among the trees there stands a roadside shrine.

Surrounded by offerings of coconut and incense, it is dedicated to the goddess Rankini, a local deity whose realm encompasses Jaduguda alone.

The people of the village put their faith in their goddess - or else in witch doctors.

Rankini's jurisdiction may be limited, but from her vantage point the goddess can spy on mere mortals toiling in the valley below.

I saw some of them. They were digging for water. Each bucket they brought to the surface was brown ooze. So they dug deeper.

Above them, barely a stone's throw from their makeshift well, there was a wall. The wall of a dam - behind which lie millions of tons of slurry and waste from the uranium pits.

And, in the river which runs past Jaduguda, I saw villagers washing their vegetables.

Upstream, the river's waters mingle with the murky outflow from the mine workings.

UCIL has successfully defended its health & safety record in court There are no signs to warn of contamination. Just as there are no signs on the trucks which carry uranium ore from the mines or bring nuclear waste from across India for dumping.

Court case

Back in 1998, when India announced it had conducted tests of a thermo-nuclear device in its north-western deserts, the people of Jaduguda came out onto the streets to celebrate "their" bomb.

After all, Jaduguda produces all of India's uranium.

Many in the village think they have shown pride in their country's nuclear achievements. Now they say it is time their country started to do more for them, and offered them proper protection and health monitoring, medical care and compensation.

People are wary too of outsiders asking questions. One accused me of being an informer. When you have spoken to us, he said, you will drink wine with the bosses from the company.

As for the company, UCIL, it promised me an interview. But at the appointed time I waited outside the mine headquarters in vain. There was no interview. And no wine.

A survey suggested that nearly one in five of all women living near the mine has suffered either a miscarriage or a stillbirth within the previous five years.

The state legislature described the deaths and health problems as deplorable.

But a court case brought by local activists against UCIL - which is a subsidiary of the department of atomic energy and of the government of India - failed, after the company insinuated the problems were the result of poor hygiene and diet, and alcohol abuse.

So now, in the courtyard of a house in a small village in India, two teenagers - brother and sister - squat on crumpled limbs on a dirt floor scooping rice from metal bowls with their misshapen hands.

In the village's main street, another boy mends bicycles he will never be able to ride - because when he was nine his legs suddenly started to bend and break. They look now as if they have melted.

And as night starts to fall, Guria's father cradles his little girl - with her beautiful dark eyes - and wonders what on Earth will happen to her when he is gone.

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