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Angry villagers take on uranium corporation

JADUGUDA, SEPT 18: They call themselves `Women Against Radiation'. They plan to hold their first meeting here on September 25 and among those who will speak is Sumati Majhi of Bhatin village. Her three children are deformed and she says the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) is to blame. Its mine is barely two km from her village.
Basanti Soren of nearby Tilaitand village says that she was deserted by her husband because she could not get pregnant. Her villain: uranium mining. Nanikey Kuira says her two children were born deformed at birth and were killed soon after. ``The earth here is poisoned,'' she said.

To the scientific community here and to experts at the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre's unit in Calcutta, this ``movement against radiation'' is a hoax being fed by the media and ignorant tribals. The radiation level at Jaduguda and around, says K K Beri, UCIL Director (Technical), is ``quite low''. The radiation limit for uranium mine workers, according to A H Khan of BARC's Health Physicsunit, is 20 millisievert per year. And the level at the Jaduguda mine, he says, is ``one-tenth'' of the permissible limit set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

UCIL denies that the physical deformities have anything to do with radiation. ``The cancer rate among UCIL employees is one-third of the national average,'' Beri says. For the villagers, this isn't convincing. In fact, UCIL was forced last year by the Jharkhand Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR), a local advocacy group, to conduct a health survey, along with the Bihar Government, of villagers living within a 2-km radius of the mine.

Of the 712 people surveyed, 31 were referred to different hospitals for ``further clinical examination.'' This was the first time any such survey was conducted here. And now BARC is planning another survey to find out the level of ``congenital defects in the population in UCIL and around.''

But to convince angry villagers, it seems, UCIL will have to come up with more than just denials.For, backed by NGOs such as the Jharkhandi Organisation for Human Rights and the Bindrai Institute of Research and Social Action, residents in eight villages around Jaduguda are getting increasingly vocal. Forming a women's group is their next big step, they say.

In October, they plan a rally where physically deformed children and their mothers will be ``presented'' to the people.

``We aren't going to make an exhibition out of these children but their presence will take our message to the hearts of the people,'' says JOAR president Ghanashyam Biruli whose parents died of cancer.

``Actually, the number of deformed children could have been much more. So many others either die or are killed soon after birth,'' he says. He admits that the deformities and diseases had been there even before the UCIL began mining here in 1967 but alleges that most of the victims are families of miners and workers at the tailing ponds where nuclear waste is deposited after enriched uranium is extracted from the ore.

It'sthese tailing ponds, Biruli says, that are more dangerous. In fact, the present movement began over the UCIL's decision to build a third such pond not far from Tilaitand village. The tribals who work at the ponds are not UCIL employees but engaged by contractors who care little about precautions.

After a 55-day siege last year of the area where the third pond was to be built, JOAR managed to get compensation, UCIL jobs and alternative land for 30-odd tribal families. But the fear of the pond, now ready for commissioning, remains. ``Why must they bring the waste all the way from Hyderabad to dump it here?'' Biruli asks.

After the uranium ore is mined and processed here, the ``yellow cake'' is sent to the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad for enrichment. The waste is then brought back to the UCIL complex for further extraction, after which the ``dust'' is dumped into the ponds.

Till 1982, the dust was dumped in Hyderabad. ``In the next stage of the movement, we'll stop the dust wagons from beingunloaded at the (Rakha Mines) railway station.'' Clearly, the battlelines are drawn.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.