A deformed existence

In Jaduguda and Rawatbhata, physical deformities are a way of life. The reality behind the shadows of India's nuclear establishment

Published: Tuesday 15 June 1999

A deformed existence

-- (Credit: mahadeo sen)GANDHAR KARMAKAR is nine years old. He has only one eye, and suffers from paralysis. Elder to him by three years is Motiram. He suffers from osteoporosis (general bone damage). Dunia Uraon, also just short of his teens, is another unfortunate adolescent. His mother suffered three miscarriages before giving birth to him and his sister, both physically handicapped. All of them are residents of Mechua village near Jaduguda, a small tribal-dominated region in south Bihar. The village is hardly a kilometre from the Uranium Corporation India Limited (ucil), which is involved in uranium extraction and is the sole supplier of the metal for India's nuclear power plants. Deformities among children in Jaduguda are a norm rather than an exception.

The story of Jaduguda is very similar to the one in Rawatbhata, a village on the eastern bank of the Rana Pratap Sagar lake, about 50 km from Kota, Rajasthan. In 1990, a scientist couple, Surendra and Sangamitra Gadekar, came across a deformed child in their alternative education centre at Vedchi near Surat, Gujarat. The child's parents told them that a neighbour in their hometown Rawatbhata also had a child with a similar deformity. In fact, there were many more. Upon investigation, the Gadekars found that there was an "extraordinary rise in congenital deformities" in the village since the Rajasthan Atomic Power Plant (raps) came up in 1972.

The similarity between Jaduguda and Rawatbhata does not end with the number of children born with deformities. They are also home to companies that work with hazardous substances, and it is stated that they do not dispose of their wastes in the approved manner. The local people say ucil -- a government of India undertaking -- has been dumping large amounts of radioactive wastes in the area since 1962.

The corporation has a tailing pond in Jaduguda. 'Tailings' are liquid and solid residues that are formed when uranium ore is processed to produce 'yellow cake'-- an ingredient that goes to fuel nuclear power plants. In Rawatbhata, radioactive emissions from raps is said to be at the root of the health problems in the area.

Jaduguda: the curse of radiation Uranium is found in extremely minute proportions (ratio of mineral to ore is around .06 per cent) in Jaduguda, Narwapahar and Bhatin mines in Singhbhum, Bihar. After extracting uranium from the ore, the left-over, known as "uranium tailings", is mixed with water and flushed into the tailing pond through pipes. ucil has constructed two tailing ponds on tribal-owned rice fields in Dumridih, a village in Jaduguda. Both these ponds have become saturated. The company recently constructed its third tailing pond at an adjacent village, Chatijkocha.

A radioactive substance is one which constantly emits harmful radiations in the form of alpha, beta and gamma particles. These particles are invisible and possess great penetrating power. They have the ability to penetrate living organisms, creating a disruption in the normal functioning of the cells. Long exposure of these radiations can lead to chromosomal mutation eventually causing diseases like cancer. In the ensuing process, the parent atom disintegrates into smaller atoms which are equally dangerous. Gamma rays are the most dangerous and are a form of pure energy, very similar to x-rays travelling at the speed of light.

According to Xavier Dias, a social activist at Chaibasa in south Bihar, "Gamma rays remain inside our bodies and continue their decaying process, cutting short the life of their host, which is the miner." Xavier presented a paper entitled 'Radiological Pollution from Uranium Mines -- Jaduguda' at the Conference on Health and Environment organised by the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi in July 1998. He also stated that in uranium mining there is both external and internal radiation.

A survey conducted by Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation (joar), a local non-governmental organisation (ngo), in 1997 found that a large number of people in Jaduguda were afflicted with cancer, various skin diseases, brain damage, kidney disorders, hypertension, deformities and fertility loss. Ghanshyam Birulee, president, joar, says: "Many women in the area complain of disrupted menstrual cycles. This area also has a high rate of either miscarriages or stillborn babies." Earlier, tribals thought such abnormalities were 'God's will'. But, of late, they have started believing that radiation from the uranium mines and tailing ponds may be responsible for their woes, he adds.

Birulee claims that nearly 30,000 people living in 15 villages in the 5-km radius of the tailing ponds are exposed to radiation. "Earlier, children were being born with deformities. Now they die within a few days of their birth," he says. He also claims that nearly one-third of the women living in these areas are suffering from loss of fertility. Even animals such as buffaloes and cows are suffering from rare diseases. "Radiation is certainly responsible for environmental and health hazards in the region. But the extent of the problem is not as enormous as is being projected," says a top official in the district administration.

After receiving a complaint against the ucil's negligence, the environment committee of the Bihar Legislative Council (blc) probed the situation for over two years and filed its final report in December 1998. The committee observed: "The waste material, which contains traces of radioactive materials, should be taken to the effluent treatment plants by pipes. It was noticed by the team that water from the dumping ground returned by open drains. This may allow some of the radioactive materials to be absorbed by the soil which may result in long-term radiation problems."

The committee also expressed dismay over the lack of safety norms at the tailing ponds site. "The people and cattle have free and unchecked access to the area around the mines. The dumping ponds are unfenced and there are no proper warning signs to restrict entry," it says. The environment committee of the blc also detected traces of radiation -- around 0.2 mr/hr in the water. Local people say that radioactive waste is thrown into a nearby stream, Gara nala, which joins Subarnarekha river. However, the Department of Atomic Energy (dae) points out that the ucil adheres to the strictest safety norms and the waste is treated to prevent any possibility of radiation leakage.

According to Dias, "There is no clay cover nor concrete bed (to prevent groundwater contamination), nor are the tailings kept under water as required by international standards." Moreover, radioactive dust litters the roads while the trucks carry away the uranium ore and its waste. When this reporter visited the area, he found the uranium being transported in open trucks. The wastes were being dumped in and around the tailing ponds without meeting the safety requirements.
Official reaction ucil officials refuse to acknowledge that a problem exists. J L Bhasin, ucil chairperson-cum-managing director, says radiation levels in the area are very low and do not pose a health hazard to the local people (See interview on page 23). A N Mullick, who served as ucil's chief medical officer for 25 years, says: "I have not come across any radiation-related ailments during my entire career."

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (barc) officials in Jaduguda say the readings taken by the blc committee are incorrect. Ironically, Sanjay Kumar, former deputy commissioner, Jamshedpur, Bihar, claims the Bihar State Pollution Control Board (bspcb) does not have proper machines to monitor radiation levels in the area. "Though the local people allege that their health problems stem from radiation, it cannot be solely held responsible for the diseases," says Anilson Lakra, block development officer (bdo), Musabani, east Singhbhum, Bihar. "There is 100 per cent malnutrition in the area and people in the region are alcoholics. Their poor living conditions may also be a reason for their woes," says Lakra.

While Dias believes there is no such thing as 'safe radiation levels', Bhasin says, "The average background radiation level is 1179 mgy/year which is well within the natural background radiation observed in Bihar." According to Bhasin, limits prescribed by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (icrp) and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (aerb) are strictly followed to contain the contamination levels in water, biota (all living organisms present in the earth), soil, and vegetation. The levels of the radiation and radioactivity are constantly monitored by the health physics unit at barc, Jaduguda.

Based on the recommendations of the environment committee, a medical team comprising doctors from barc, Mumbai; a civil surgeon from east Singhbhum; ucil chief medical officer and a nuclear medicine specialist at the Tata Memorial Hospital, Jamshedpur, conducted a detailed medical and radiation survey in all the villages around Jaduguda. They ruled that the disease pattern in Jaduguda cannot be ascribed to radiation exposure. Instead, in their report, they attributed reasons for the prevailing diseases to genetic abnormalities like thalassemia major and retinitispigmentosa, chronic malarial infection, malnutrition -- which have no relation to radiation.

An earlier report filed by a team of doctors sent by the Bihar government had stated that no safety measures were taken by ucil to prevent people and animals from entering the radioactive zone.

In addition to the medical survey based on the recommendations of the environmental committee, a radiation survey was also conducted by scientists from the health physics unit of barc. They concluded: "The operations undertaken by ucil in Jaduguda have not resulted in any increase in the natural background radiation levels beyond levels prescribed by the aerb." A senior ucil official says that certain foreign countries may be funding local leaders to instigate protests against the uranium mining. This has started after the nuclear tests were carried out in the country in May last year, he says.

Local people say highly radioactive waste from the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad and barc's Rare Materials Plant (rmp) in Mumbai is also dumped in the tailing ponds of Jaduguda. "If the waste does not pose environmental or health hazards, why is it not dumped in Hyderabad or Mumbai instead of bringing it to Jaduguda?" asks Birulee.

The environment committee of blc has emphasised the need to have foolproof methods to ensure that the existing tailing ponds, and the ones that are the supposed to be constructed, do not pose environmental and health hazards. It said that there should not be any human settlements in a 5-km radius of the dumping ground.

In 1996, when people were protesting against the construction of the third tailing pond in the area, the district administration came to ucil's rescue. However, the dc of Singhbum district says even after reaching an agreement with the local people on relocating them and paying them Rs 45,000 as compensation, nothing has been achieved so far. People do not want to leave the area. "I think they are under international pressure and the local leaders are brainwashing them to act against the government. Otherwise, there is no question of them not complying with what has been agreed upon,"says the DC.

The state government has already spent crores of rupees for tribal welfare. But nobody knows where the money goes.
Rawatbhata In the early 1990s, the Gadekars and a team of voluntary health workers conducted a house-to-house scientific survey of five villages near raps -- Tamlav, Deepura, Malpura, Bakhspura and Jharjhani -- all located within 10 km radius of the plant. They found that due to the north-east direction of the wind, radioactive emissions were more pronounced in the five villages due to 'presence of radionuclides in rain' than in other areas. As an experiment, the scientists chose four similar villages 50 km away in the south-west direction in Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh.

The scientists found no statistical difference between the two sets of villages in cases of short-duration fever, conjunctivitis and breathing difficulties. But chronic problems, which included long-duration fevers, skin and eye problems, continual digestive tract problems, joint pains, bodyaches, lethargy and general debility, were found to be two to three times higher in the proximate villages, the study noted.

"While there was no difference in cases of conjunctivitis, the incidence of cataract was double. It was the same with skin problems," says Sanghamitra. In the proximate villages, nine children showed "signs" indicating radiation effects -- pterigium, an eye problem associated with the growth of cornea. In addition there were 30 people with tumours. In contrast, only five tumours were reported from the distant villages.

The prevalence of deformities was found to be much higher among people born after 1972 when the plant came up. While the relative risk for deformities was 2.8 for the total population, it had increased to 3.45 for people less than 18 years of age (born after the raps-i started operation) and 5.08 among children less than 11 (born after the raps-ii started).

The proximate villages showed deformities at the rate of 77.5 per 1,000, whereas the distant villages showed only 15.2 per 1,000. The Gadekars compare this figure to those in the deformity prevalence study by the Anthropological Survey of India conducted in 14 states. The frequency of major and minor defects was 9.8 per 1,000, with considerable regional variations.

There were 16 cases of deformities of the musculo-skeletal system, such as amputated hands and toes, club-foot, extra fingers and webbed feet in the proximate villages compared to five in the distant villages. Other major observations included deformities of the sense organs and mental retardation among those living in the vicinity of the plants, the Gadekars noted.

The number of abortions, still-births and congenital abnormalities were also much higher in the proximate villages. At the same time, influencing factors such as the average age of the mother at the first child's birth and average number of pregnancies were similar in both the areas.

They presented a paper on their findings at cse's National Conference on Health and Environment in July 1998. The Gadekars concluded their study rather tersely: "Radiation from raps, either alone or in combination with other factors, is the most likely source of these health problems."

Government reaction
"If the main mischief maker is raps, then why are the children of the plant workers not deformed?" says raps chief superintendent. Other explanations given by government officials include contaminated water, malnutrition and prevalence of polio in the affected villages. Gadekars have rejected these explanations saying that their study of the two set of villages, where the lifestyle and general health status are similar, points out there is something wrong in Rawatbhata.

In July 1990, former Union minister of state for science and technology M G K Menon said there was no evidence to suggest that the villages around raps had been affected by radiation. He said physical defects found by a "lady medical worker" may have their origin in other causes.

Later, officials of barc -- who oversee the safety and health aspects of nuclear plants -- replied that there is a raps health scheme for the workers and families covering 10,000 individuals. During a period of 24 years (1967-1990), they recorded only 30 deaths attributable to cancer that is 1.3 deaths per 10,000 people per year, far less than the national average of 4 to 5 cancer deaths per 10,000 people. They maintained that the environmental survey laboratory at raps has been testing the radiation levels. Total exposure from all routes, external as well as internal, received by an individual at 5 km in the raps environment varied between 1-1.7 mrem (unit of radioactivity) per year, much less than the internationally prescribed norms, barc officials maintained.

Government nuclear scientists still steadfastly refuse to accept the claims of the Gadekars. Says U C Mishra, head of the health, safety and environment group, barc, Mumbai: "The findings (of the Gadekars) do not tally with the well-known effects of low-level radiation." He assures that the radiation levels at raps, monitored by Central Pollution Control Board-affiliated environment labs, have noted nothing strange to warrant attention. But there are others who feel that an independent study needs to be conducted to ascertain the truth. "Many villagers in the late 1970s and 1980s were used as temporary workers to clean up radioactive material within the power station. However, there is no database with raps on how many people entered the radioactive area or for how long each was exposed to it," says A Gopalakrishnan, former chairperson of aerb (See interview on page 25).

Despite the fact that a number of people associated with ucil and raps deny the radiation exposure theory, there are many who believe there is no 'safe way' of mining uranium or storing these huge quantities of radioactive waste. Even if the extraction of uranium is banned, the volume of radioactive tailings already existing will be difficult to dispose and this will tell on the generations to come.

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