Adivasis (literally, “original inhabitants,” equivalent to “indigenous peoples”) have been and are being sacrificed in the union government’s uranium mining and processing projects in what is now the State of Jharkhand, earlier the State of Bihar, where the public enterprise, Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) began underground uranium mining and processing operations at Jaduguda in East Singhbhum in 1967. Then at Bhatin, three km away from Jaduguda; followed by Narwapahar, twelve km north-west of Jaduguda, in 1995; then the Turamdih mine and processing plant, twenty-four km west of Jaduguda, in 2003; Bagjata, 25 km east of Jaduguda, commissioned in 2008; Banduhurang, UCIL’s first open pit mine, adjacent to the Turamdih mine, in 2009; and Mohuldih, 27 km north-west of Jaduguda, in 2012. The Juduguda mine and these subsequently developed mines, together with the two uranium processing plants, constitute what may be called the Jaduguda uranium mining cluster (in short, the Jaduguda cluster), ensuring economies of scale and scope. The communities in and around this cluster have been mainly composed of Santals, Hos, Mundas, Araons, and other Adivasis who have been bearing the brunt—the disparate impacts and disproportionate burdens—of dispossession, displacement, and radioactive contamination over the last five decades.
Uranium mining and processing—producing uranium oxide (U3O8) concentrate called yellowcake and some fifteen hundred to two-thousand times the yellowcake quantity of residual material or tailings—constitute the initial step of the process of production of nuclear weapons that culminates in their final assembly and storage, with serious health and environmental hazards at each step. And, of course, from the yellowcake, what becomes the fuel for the nuclear power plants. With India joining the ranks of “near nuclear and de facto nuclear weapons countries”, like Israel, following its testing of a nuclear weapon in 1974, one can reasonably surmise that the yellowcake from the Jaduguda cluster has been (and is) used as the basic raw material for the making of not merely the fuel for nuclear power plants but weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Any guess then why vital information required to throw light on the environmental and human distress in and around the Jaduguda cluster has been withheld. More so because of the government’s culture of secrecy, enshrined in the colonial Official Secrets Act, 1923—independent India’s anti-Freedom of Information Act—that has stifled the quality of work of independent journalists and scholars in matters that are deemed to have a bearing on “National Security”. Indeed, even information on UCIL’s annual capacity in metric tons of the U3O8 concentrate or its actual production is not in the public realm. Wonder how the Right to Information Act, 2005 would help, given that information deemed to have a bearing on Intelligence and Security is virtually excluded from its purview.
India’s nuclear establishment has been engaged in “self-regulation” under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, which assigns the responsibility to the central government, and so, when the Atomic Energy Regulation Board (AERB) was formed in 1983, it was placed under the Department of Atomic Energy, which also had (and has) the UCIL under its wing. The AERB claims that it reviews the safety of the Jaduguda cluster of uranium mines and processing, conducts regulatory inspections and enforcements, as per the “provisions of the Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules, 2004, [and] also enforces [the] industrial safety aspects under the Factories Act, 1948 and the Atomic Energy (Factories) Rules, 1996”. But it seems to have chosen to focus more on issuing guidelines and directives for self-regulation, and formulating rules promulgated by the central government on radiation related safety in uranium mining and processing, safe disposal of radioactive wastes, working of the mines, handling of “prescribed substances” (uranium), and so on.
Surely the AERB has been aware of the specific problems related to land acquisition, uprooting, and rehabilitation/resettlement that have been faced by the adversely affected Adivasi communities. Notices for the takeover of lands have at times been served under the Atomic Energy Act, dispensing with state government permission. The proximity of drinking water sources to the tailings, the latter turned into a slurry in the event of heavy rains, overflowing, and contaminating adjacent agricultural fields, streams, and the Subarnarekha River. Indeed, in the early years of mine and processing operations, the tailings were said to have just been piled in unlined pits, from where they most likely leached into groundwater and ran off into surface water.
It was only somewhat later that proper tailing ponds were built. Some of the tailing ponds reportedly still remain near where Adivasi communities reside. Pipeline ruptures or bursts in 1981, 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2014 near tailing ponds have discharged radioactive sludge. Probable elevated lung cancer rates among contract workers from inhaling radon gas particles is not unfounded, for these workers have not been protected as much as the regular workers of UCIL, and their radiation exposures have not been documented, for they do not have access to the medical care that the regular workers of UCIL have been entitled to. Most likely, these workers have been underground miners and haulers assigned the most dangerous jobs in close proximity with the uranium ore and its decay products. Probable deaths of contract worker after contract worker from undiagnosed cancer or other serious occupational hazards are not unfounded. This section of workers, especially the Adivasi ones, have been kept in abysmal ignorance and deliberately deceived.
The local water consumed by the Adivasi communities has been contaminated with radium levels much higher than the drinking water standard. It was only after mobilisation of the Adivasi local communities by the Jharkhandi Organisation of Struggling Humans (JOSH) and the TuramdihVisthapit Samiti (TVS, Association of the Turamdih Uprooted People) in 2018 that the company made available treated water through water tankers (irregularly though) outside the company colonies. Water contamination, however, continues to adversely affect the outer-circle, poor Adivasi and other communities. In general, mitigation measures have been least likely to be implemented for these communities, and anyway, UCIL has not bothered to even try to restore the water sources of the local Adivasi communities to pre-mining conditions.
Although there reportedly is some evidence of the adverse health effects of consuming contaminated fish in the Jaduguda cluster, this does not seem to have been properly documented, although Dumkar Murmu, the founder of Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR), in an interview in 2017, speaks about it, and of “mutations in the fish, [and] the congenital deformities in livestock” in the late 1990s. UCIL has, of course, employed the Adivasis as workers, one non-permanent job per displaced household, and a vast number of displaced Adivasis have been employed by UCIL’s contractors in mining and processing, and this has been an important source of livelihood. Indeed, most workers at the mining and processing sites are contract labourers getting lower wages, with no medical care, no retirement benefits when they are no longer needed, nor eligibility for UCIL employee colony housing, and no access for their children to UCIL run schools. Compensation for displacement has practically been only through employment, and this has kept many an Adivasi household from starvation.
Given UCIL’s poor, ground-level environmental record, no wonder it takes recourse to undemocratic tactics at the “public hearings” conducted by the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board (JSPCB) for environmental clearance of proposed mining projects or expansion of existing mines and processing plants. For instance, for one such public hearing in 2004, for the Banduhurang mining project,
UCIL decided to use strong arm tactics to put down dissent. They brought in the para-military Rapid Action Force, armed with AK-47s [and] dressed in battle gear, besides the state police and the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), and notorious mafia members from [the Tata Steel town of nearby] Jamshedpur… [But] the frightened Adivasis had to voice their feelings about giving up their lands and livelihoods for the project. The chairman of the JSPCB failed to act impartially and manipulated the meeting in such a way that those who opposed the project were not allowed to speak. [But] Despite the show of muscle and steel there was a strong voice of opposition at the hearing.
At another such public hearing, in May 2009 for environmental clearance for the expansion of mining and processing at Jaduguda, UCIL
employees and their families crowded out the affected villagers. The venue was surrounded by armed and baton-wielding police and the CISF, creating a repressive atmosphere… the ‘public’ who have lost their lands and whose health has been damaged due to radiation could find no place [at the meeting]… [However, at] a dharna just outside the fence surrounding the venue… Ghanashyam Biruli [Birulee], a local villager and president of JOAR, put forward the villagers’ demands… [which included making] an independent study of the environmental and health impact of the UCIL’s operations in Jaduguda, [and monitoring] the water bodies to ensure that the radionuclides do not seep into the aquifer used by more than 1,00,000 people… [JOAR also pointed out to the JSPCB that] places like the Jaduguda colony, NarwaPahar colony where the impact of radiation is relatively less were surveyed while the villages of Tilaitand, Chatikocha, Dungridih and others that are among the worst affected were deliberately left out.
The adverse health effects of the environmental hazards posed by uranium mining and processing have most probably been experienced on a significant scale, and the local Adivasis have suffered the adverse effects firsthand, as lived experience. Moreover, the toxic and radiation risks are unique in terms of duration—they are longue durée. And there was a long, assertive movement against the opening of the Turamdih mine and processing plant, led by the TVS, cognisant of the environmental hazards and health effects. Sample, however, what UCIL has to say to exonerate itself and the central government for the adverse health effects from the uranium mines and processing —that the
… radiation level in and around Jaduguda is much below the limit as prescribed by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP)… The various studies carried out by experts have proved beyond doubt that the diseases prevalent in the villages around UCIL workings are not due to radiation but attributed to malnutrition, malaria and unhygienic living conditions etc. A full-fledged Environmental Survey Laboratory cum Health Physics Unit—an independent body under the administrative control of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) is in operation since inception to carry out environmental and radiological surveillance in and around UCIL’s units… Statistical data at regular intervals reveal no significant effect on ground and surface water bodies due to UCIL activities. Similarly, up-take studies on more than thirty species of different groups (plant & animal) show that there is no significant change in background radiation due to UCIL operation…
…On the suggestion of the Environment Committee of the Legislative Council of Bihar (the then State), a health survey of all the residents within 2 km of UCIL was jointly undertaken by a medical team comprising doctors from Bihar Government and UCIL in the year 1998… The medical survey by specialists did not identify any patient suffering from radiation related diseases…
…health records maintained at UCIL Hospital show that the various ailment like TB, Congenital Malformation, Cancer etc. in and around Jaduguda are much less than the national average…
…UCIL has obtained ISO 9001:2000 certification for Quality Assurance, ISO 14001:2004 certification for Environmental Management System and IS-18001:2000 certification for Occupational Health and Safety Management System. It reflects the commitment of the company towards safe and environment-friendly operations in all its existing and upcoming projects…
…Under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986 Public Hearing is conducted by the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) prior to commissioning of different projects. [The]… standard regulatory procedure laid down in Environment Protection Act 1986 for conducting Public Hearing by the SPCB… is strictly followed.
This “scientific” propaganda is a sad reflection on the scientific temper of a section of the scientific and technological personnel in the employ of the central government, some of the scientific institutions under the Department of Atomic Energy, including the AERB, and the UCIL. These scientific personnel do not seem to be concerned about or even bother to consider the lived experience of the Adivasi and oppressed caste people in and around the Jaduguda cluster over the last five decades. They seem to have vetted the propaganda more like public relations professionals than men or women of science. Contrast these scientists and doctors as stenographers of power with two ordinary Adivasi villagers, Ghanshyam Birulee and Dumka Murmu, the former, president of JOAR, the latter, one of its founders (as mentioned above):
In Jadugoda, the community began to notice something was amiss in the early 1980s. Ghanshyam Birulee’s father, a uranium miner for UCIL, was stricken with lung cancer and died suddenly in 1984. And then his mother, inexplicably, also contracted lung cancer and passed away in 1995. Birulee, who belongs to the Ho Adivasi community, explained that he understood his father’s death from lung cancer as being directly linked to his work in the uranium mines. But no one could understand why his mother, who had never set foot in the mines, would also contract lung cancer. After consulting with public health scientists, Birulee determined that his mother’s laundering of his father’s uniforms, caked with uranium dust, likely triggered her cancer. But Birulee, and his counterpart, fellow Adivasi rights activist Dumkar Murmu, had more than a health crisis on their hands. Adivasi loss of land and agriculture due to UCIL’s expansion spurred them to found the Jharkhand Adivasi Visthapit Berojgar Sangh (JAVBS, Jharkhandi Displaced Unemployed Union) in 1994… In 1998, in the wake of India’s second nuclear weapons tests in the Pokhran Desert, Birulee and Murmu joined a yatra walk from Pokhran, Rajasthan, to Sarna, Punjab, to protest India’s embrace of nuclear weapons. Many yatra travellers opposed nuclear weapons but embraced nuclear energy, and this rationalisation was troubling for Murmu and Birulee. The more they learned about radiation, the stronger their convictions became: both peaceful and martial uses of nuclear technology would accelerate Adivasi suffering. In either case, Jadugoda’s people would bear the brunt of the contamination, displacement and dispossession. Upon their return, they started JOAR…to investigate the impacts of radiation on local communities and demand accountability from UCIL… To that end, since 1998, JOAR has commissioned epidemiological studies and detailed investigations of uranium’s impacts on humans and animals in the local environment.
Birulee and Murmu reached out to Gandhian activists of the Sampoorna Kranti Vidyalaya (SKV, Institute for Total Revolution), based in Vedchhi, a tribal village 60 km from Surat in Gujarat, who conducted a public health study, coordinated and led by a nuclear physicist and a physician, Surendra and Sanghamitra Gadekar. The study focused on four villages near the tailing ponds, and two control villages some fifty km away. From this study JOAR learned that radiation levels in the villages close to the tailing ponds were roughly twenty times higher than those in the villages fifty km away, and the former set of villages faced significant adverse health outcomes.
Indeed, an April 2004 study, “Radioactive Contamination Around Jadugoda Uranium Mine in India,” by Hiroaki Koide, a Japanese scientist at the Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University, found, among other things, that
The contamination from the uranium mine has spread in Jadugoda… The amount of air-gamma dose exceeds one mSv/y in the villages and reaches ten mSv/y around the tailing ponds… The circumference of tailing ponds is polluted with uranium. The strength of the pollution in the tailing ponds is 10 to 100 times higher than the place without contamination… Especially [the village] Dungridih that is in contact with the tailing pond has high contamination. However, other villages have not contaminated seriously yet… Radon emanated from tailing ponds etc. spreads contamination… Mine-tailings used for construction material spreads pollution… Product uranium is dealt with carelessly and has fallen in environment… [And, Koide emphasises,] I want to add again that the exposure of labours in the mine, including Jadugoda, will be the largest problem. I hope that in the future the sufficient investigation will be done, and the result will be fully announced, and then the necessary relief measures will be taken.
JOAR is still waiting for UCIL to take such measures. Technological upgradation over time in uranium mining and processing, which came after inordinate delay, did not result in a fundamental clean-up, for the mining and processing operations have expanded manifold in the Jaduguda cluster, negating any possible reductions (due to technological modernisation) in exposure to gamma rays, inhalation of long-lived radionuclide dust, and exposure to radon and radon decay products, all three, per kg of yellowcake output. One is reminded of the Jevons Paradox, well-known to environmentalists, which tells us that technological fixes alone cannot resolve the ecological contradictions of capitalism. Third-generation nuclear power plants, able to reuse spent fuel, will have a lower input coefficient of nuclear fuel, and thus a lower output of yellowcake will be required for the same capacity of nuclear power plants. However, in the wake of such technological breakthrough, the planned expansion of nuclear power capacity will negate this lower output requirement of yellowcake.
So, yellowcake production and two-thousand times that in the form of more tailings will continue to expand. The villagers, mainly Adivasi and oppressed-caste residents, have anyway been kept in abysmal ignorance of the environmental hazards and the accompanying adverse health effects of uranium mining and processing. Indeed, they seem to have been deliberately deceived. Over the last five decades, the central government, the regulator—AERB, and the UCIL have disregarded the potential and actual adverse health effects, particularly where the Adivasis and other oppressed-caste villagers have been the potential or actual victims.
However, signs of hope and optimism are evident in biographical snippets of activists like Ghanshyam Birulee, president of JOAR, profiled above, whose father, a uranium miner for UCIL, died of lung cancer in 1984. His mother too—her laundering of his father’s uniforms, caked with uranium dust, likely triggered it. Birulee’s activism in JOAR and JAVBS has likely played a significant role in creating awareness in at least some of UCIL’s direct and indirect (employed through contractors) workforce of the imperative to confront their managements about the life-threatening environmental conditions in the Jaduguda cluster. An environmental proletariat in the making, one hopes. ooo
- https://www.aerb.gov.in/english/regulatory-facilities/nuclear-fuel-cycle-facilities AERB, Policies Governing Regulation of Nuclear and Radiation Safety (Mumbai: Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, July 2014), https://www.aerb.gov.in/images/PDF/Policies_Governing_Regulation.pdf
- I draw on, not uncritically, Maia Sikina, “Resistance and Resilience in Uranium Mines in Jharkhand”, in People Against Nuclear Energy: Anti-nuclear Movements in India edited by Ajmal Khan A. T. (New Delhi: Sage Publications and Yoda Press, 2022), 163-189. This article highlights the human and environmental toll of uranium mining and processing in what became the Jaduguda cluster, from the start in 1968, and Adivasi resistance, albeit belated, to it. It also throws light on Adivasi resilience in the face of the environmental hazards and the adverse health effects that have been accompanying them. I have also referred to relevant press clippings from the late 1990s onward, at https://www.wise-uranium.org/umopjdg.html. For instance, a survey conducted by Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD), affiliated to International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), in association with Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation (JOAR), in villages 2.5 km from the mines and in villages 30 km away from the mining areas, released in 2008, had come up with the following findings: There was a higher incidence of cancer deaths and early deaths in the nearby villages. More children in the nearby villages died each year due to “extreme physical deformity”. There was a higher incidence of “primary sterility”—nearly 10 percent of women in the nearby villages were not able to conceive even three years after marriage (The Telegraph, March 2, 2008).
- Maia Sikina, “Resistance and Resilience in Uranium Mines in Jharkhand”, 181, 183, and 173.
- Xavier Dias, “DAE’s Gambit”, Economic and Political Weekly, 40, no. 32 (August 6-12, 2005): 3568.
- Moushumi Basu, “Who Pays the Price for Uranium Mining?” Economic and Political Weekly, 44, no. 49 (December 5-11, 2009): 15-16.
- Maia Sikina, “Resistance and Resilience in Uranium Mines in Jharkhand,” 172—73.
- Sv, sievert, represents the stochastic health risk of ionizing radiation, indicative of the probability of causing radiation-induced cancer and genetic damage. Note that the stated mSv/year values are above the limits specified by the International Atomic Energy Agency for public exposure, and especially, far above, for such exposure around the tailing ponds, as also for occupational exposure at the tailing ponds.
- Hiroaki Koide, “Radioactive Contamination Around Jadugoda Uranium Mine in India” (Kyoto: Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University, April 27, 2004), http://www.rri.kyoto-u.ac.jp/NSRG/genpatu/india/JADFINAL.pdf