The fallout of Uranium mining

Nuclear issues in India are treated as something quite out of the purview of the ordinary citizen that can only be comprehended by a select group. This is the main reason for our people’s disconnect with the risks posed by nuclear technology.

KUMNI KARMAKAR, the wife of a local blacksmith living near the Raka railway station on a main road that leads to Jadugoda in Jharkand, was pregnant for one more time. Everyone was eagerly waiting to see the newborn baby. As usual, Arjun Karmakar, the blacksmith husband, was working in his shop in the late afternoon when he got the news that his wife had given birth to a baby boy. Arjun ran to see his new-born baby. A deep silence welcomed him at home; the reception was awful and shocking, as he caught the first glimpse of his newborn baby, without eyes.
These horrifying incidents are not new to this small tribal village, Jadugoda. A survey by the Singhbhum Legal Aids Society (SLADS) established that 1,100 disabled people live in nine panchayats, 42 villages and 160 hamlets in Potka, Musabani and Ghatshila Block within 10 km of the Jadugoda Nuclear complex. Once proud for contributing to India’s nuclear achievements, today the village is paying a heavy price - with the precious lives of its residents. The state-owned Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) in Jadugoda mines and exports yellowcake (U3O8) to the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) in Hyderabad, more than a thousand kilometres away in southern India, for fabrication into fuel rods. Waste from the NFC plant, as well as nuclear wastes from other parts of India, are then returned by road and rail to Jadugoda and dumped on what were the tribals’ paddy fields, adjacent to their villages.
Ignorance of the effects of atomic radiation has rendered many Santhali, Ho and Mundari tribes, victims of uranium mining. Uranium mining is known to be hazardous. Apart from the usual risks associated with mining, uranium miners and the people who are living near the mines worldwide have experienced a much higher incidence of lung cancer and other lung diseases. There are several studies indicating an increased incidence of skin cancer, stomach cancer, birth defects and kidney disease among uranium miners. The most visible and heartbreaking impact of the mines has been in the form of deformed children. Low level radiation causes genetic damage, slowly degrading the DNA material held within eggs and sperm, an inheritance upon which the whole human race depends. Once the genes have been damaged there is no hope. This damage is expressed in a multitude of ways: an inability to conceive, miscarriages, stillbirths or one-day deaths (death within 24 hours of birth).
Children here have been born with skeletal distortions, partially formed skulls, blood disorders and a broad variety of physical deformities. Most common is: missing eyes or toes, fused fingers or limbs incapable of supporting them. Brain damage often compounds these physical disabilities. A survey stated that nearly one in five of all women living near the mine have suffered either a miscarriage or a stillbirth within the previous five years.
Over the years, unjust economic and development policies in our country have marginalized millions of tribals and excluded them from the mainstream social, cultural and political life. As a result, many tribal communities have lost and are losing their source of livelihood, culture, language, custom and religion. Uranium mining is one industry in which justice is denied and in addition, the invisible radioactive radon gas lurks in the mines to sign the death warrant; it gives rise to lung cancer in the workers at the mines, the tribes living near the mines and tailing the ponds.
The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) wants to mine uranium in the country (even though it can import the radioactive ore from abroad), for the sake of achieving self-sufficiency. Chances of India importing uranium from abroad are good. The nuclear establishment is eyeing other uranium deposits in Domiasiat in Meghalaya, Nalgonda and Kadapa districts in Andhra Pradesh and other parts of India for mining uranium after having caused extensive damage around its existing mines in Jharkhand.
Nuclear issues in India are treated as something quite out of the purview of the ordinary citizen that can only be comprehended by a select group. This is the main reason for our people’s disconnect with the risks posed by nuclear technology. Policymakers, who are moving ahead with nuclear proliferation, are taking advantage of the lack of an environmental movement in the context of nuclear technology-related activities in India. The absence of an anti-nuclear movement in India is attributed to many factors, prominent amongst them being the high rate of illiteracy, inefficient communication network and a fairly uninformed population.
Arjun Karmakar, 11 years after his younger son’s birth, is struggling to smile even as he tries to provide the best of care for his blind son. Arjun wonders what the plight of his son would be after his death.