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Uranium mine waste imperils villages in Jaduguda

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Mar 15, 2008 | From the print edition

-- (Credit: SURYA SEN)Radioactive waste from three government-owned uranium mines has put about 50,000 people in Jharkhand's Jaduguda at risk. The people, mostly tribal communities, suffer from serious radiation-related health problems. But the mines in East Singhbhum district continue without adequate safety measures.

On studying more than 9,000 people (over 2,000 houses) in five villages near the mines owned by the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (ucil), researchers found cases of congenital deformities, sterility, spontaneous abortions and cancer were alarmingly high among the villagers, mostly from the Ho, Santhal, Munda and Mahali tribes.

The mines, set up four decades ago, employ around 5,000 people. A team from the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (idpd) and a local ngo Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation (joar) conducted the study in May-August last year. idpd is an organization of medical professionals working against nuclear weapons. The team also studied 23 other villages, 30 km away from the mine sites. Their analysis shows the rate of radiation-related diseases is higher in villages close to the mines than in those away from the mines (see box: Who cares?).

According to the union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, three per cent people in India suffer from physical disabilities; congenital deformity being one of them. In the villages in Jaduguda, the percentage of congenital deformity itself is at 4.49 per cent, as compared to 2.49 per cent in the reference villages. This, says the study, is commensurate with the findings at Church Rock mines in New Mexico, usa. In 1979, a dam at the mining site burst, sending gallons of radioactive mill wastes and triggering an environmental crisis.

The safety situation at the mines is equally dismaying. The company dumps waste from the mines in open fields and transports uranium ore in uncovered dumpers. Just about a decade ago, say villagers, the playgrounds for children and grazing areas were near the three tailing ponds. The company even supplied mine tailings as construction material to the villagers . In December 2006, a pipe burst spilling radioactive waste. There was no warning system in place. The authorities took about nine hours to respond. People recall several similar incidents.

Ramendra Gupta, chairman and managing director of ucil, feigns ignorance of the report. He says the findings by the "so called experts" were "not true". He says "just one ngo" is magnifying the issue. Referring to three ucil- sponsored studies, he says the health problems in the area are due to "malnutrition, unhygienic conditions and malaria". "The residents of the villages are better off financially than people in the distant villages, since they work in ucil. This should have shown better health conditions. That the opposite is the case is proof that the health problems are linked to radiation", says Shakeel Ur Rahman lead author.

When Down To Earth points out that all the studies he referred were by government agencies, Gupta flares up: "Are you implying they are biased?" He did not, however, quote any independent study. Ghanshyam Biruli of joar says ucil has kept local people in the dark about the effects of radiation.
"They have not shared the studies that they were supposed to have conducted; not even the routine records of radiation exposure levels among workers, though we filed several rti applications." He adds: "Why tribals living 100 km from the mining site under similar living conditions do not have these health problems?" Repeated requests from Down To Earth for the studies did also not meet with any response.

joar has been demanding rehabilitation of the people, but to no avail. The study warns that authorities should conduct proper health studies before starting such projects. The caution gains importance considering the centre is planning such projects in Chhattisgarh, Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh.

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