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Jaduguda's hapless children

GURIA IS a dark-eyed little girl, who lies on a rope bed in the shade of her house, waiting for her daddy to come home. She grins as she sees him, and those dark eyes light up. Her father returns his daughter's smile as he picks her up in his arms. But his eyes are filled with tears.

Guria can't speak. Nor can she walk. She can't feed herself. Her hands — if you can call them hands — are bent and quiver. Her legs are useless. But her eyes reach out.

Her father pedals a rickshaw for a living. He earns around £12 a month. He tells me he will do all he can for Guria, while he's alive. But when he dies, what then?

Guria is seven years old. A stone's throw from her house, another girl lies on another bed made of rope. She is 23. She is like Guria, save for the fact she also seems to be in pain. She gasps for breath; her look is anguished. She is fully dressed in her outdoor clothes, but she never goes anywhere, never has been anywhere. For 23 years this has been her life.

The parents of these girls aren't sure what's caused their daughters' plight. There are around 50 other children in the village of Jaduguda in a similar condition.

But, the state-owned corporation, which runs the vast uranium mine complex that dominates the village, insists it is not responsible. Instead, the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) points to the way in which over the past 30 to 40 years it has transformed Jaduguda — bringing jobs, money, and housing for the workers — as well as making an obscure village the first link in the nuclear chain from which the whole of India's much-vaunted atomic programme hangs.

Jaduguda's importance is that it produces all of India's uranium. So when India announced, in 1998, that it had carried out tests of a thermonuclear device, the people of the village came on to the streets to celebrate their bomb. Around the same time though, a local pressure group — the Jharkhand Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR) — was also conducting tests of its own closer to home. These revealed that nearly one in five women living within one kilometre of the mines complex had recently suffered a miscarriage or given birth to a stillborn child.

But the critics of the mine say it's the children who survive, for however long, who are the most damning evidence of the damage being done — children with skeletal distortions, partially formed skulls, swollen heads, missing eyes and ears, fused fingers, blood disorders, and brain damage.

That damage — they admit — has not been caused by high levels of radiation. This is no Chernobyl, certainly no Hiroshima. Instead, they argue, it's the result of constant exposure to very low but over time highly insidious and toxic levels of emission. Contamination is now virtually everywhere around Jaduguda.

These are the lands of the Adivasis. Two groups, the Ho and the Santhal, have lived in the surrounding hills for hundreds — possibly thousands — of years. Many had their lands requisitioned when the mines came. Instead of living off the land, they were forced to work under it.

The woods were once the haunt of bear, elephant, and tiger. They are gone now, and the once lush forest canopy is sparse, but among the trees there stands a roadside shrine. Surrounded by offerings of coconut and incense, it's dedicated to the Goddess Rankini, a local deity whose realm encompasses just a handful of villages. The people here put their faith in their Goddess — or else in witchcraft — because, for some, the painful afflictions of their children are as easily ascribed to divine displeasure, evil spirits, and black magic as they are to something else they can't see or hear or smell, but which lurks in the soil, or the air, or the water.

A stone's throw down the valley from the Goddess' shrine stands the wall of a dam, behind which are tipped millions of tonnes of slurry and waste from the uranium pits. Barely 50 yards from the wall, a group of tribal people digs for water. Each bucket they bring to the surface is brown ooze, so they dig deeper. The man in charge tells me they know the water is contaminated, but what else can they do?

In the river that runs past Jaduguda, villagers wash their vegetables. A few yards upstream is the confluence where the river's waters are met by the murky outflow from the mine workings. There are no signs there to warn of contamination. Just as there are no signs on the open topped trucks that carry uranium ore from the mines, or bring nuclear waste from other parts of India for dumping.

In his office, half a mile across the valley from the mine complex, Ghanshyam Biruli, the president of JOAR, tells me how loose rock from overloaded trucks falls on to the road, and how children and livestock pick their way through piles of uranium ore.

He describes how the uranium miners go to work in cotton clothes and leather gloves to dig ore from deposits that are anything up to 2,000 feet underground. Besides the normal hazards of mining, there are high levels of radon gas. He says the miners of Jaduguda are in the highest radiation exposure category of any worker in the nuclear industry anywhere in the world.

And — incredibly — once a week they bring their cotton uniforms home for their wives, or children, to wash with soap and water.

They want the truth

Few people in Jaduguda want the uranium mine to go away. Like so many people around the world who live near a nuclear facility, their livelihoods are now dependent on it. But they want the truth; they want better protection, and they want compensation for those of them who've been damaged. Instead they get secrecy and intimidation. Many people are afraid to talk. Some thought I might be an informer. One of them pointed at me and said: "when you have spoken to us, then you will drink wine with the company."

Ghanshyam Biruli says he's had death threats. For three years he had to leave the village. When he returned, UCIL tried to offer him a job with the company. He refused.

As for the company, it promised me an interview but at the appointed time I waited outside the mine complex in vain. There was no interview, and no wine. UCIL is never very forthcoming.

The State legislature once described the deaths and health problems in Jaduguda as deplorable. But a court case brought by JOAR against UCIL — a subsidiary of the Department of Atomic Energy and of the Government of India — failed, after the company insinuated they were the result of poor diet and hygiene, and alcohol abuse.

So now, in the courtyard of a house in a small Indian village, two teenagers — brother and sister with crumpled limbs — squat on the dirt floor and scoop rice with their hands from metal bowls. (The pleasure they get just from holding my radio microphone is obvious — like children about to sing karaoke. But they can't sing. They can't talk.) In the village main street, the torso of another boy mends bicycles, he will never be able to ride, because when he was nine his legs suddenly began to bend and break, until they look now as if they've been melted.

And as night begins to fall in the hills around Jaduguda, down in the village, Guria's father cradles his little girl — with her beautiful dark eyes — wondering what on Earth will happen to her when he is no longer around to care for her.

(Listen to Mark Whitaker's documentary in the BBC World Service science programme, One Planet on Thursday, 11 May at 0430 GMT, repeated at 1030, 1630 and 2230 GMT.)

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