Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tribes dig in to fight uranium

Subir Bhaumik
BBC correspondent in Meghalaya
For more than a decade, India has been unable to mine high-quality uranium deposits in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya.
Fierce resistance by Khasi tribes people has all but scuttled a $100m project drawn up by the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL).
The tribes people fear radiation could damage their health.
One senior UCIL official said: "Every time we turn up at the uranium mines, the tribes people chase us with bows and arrows and swords.
"They call us the agents of death and threaten to kill us if we try to mine uranium."
Our people cannot suffer because India wants our uranium... It is our people first and India comes after that
Paul Lyngdoh, former Khasi student leader
UCIL, the only state-owned company authorised to mine uranium in India, believes that once mining starts in the West Khasi Hills region, there will be huge development, particularly in infrastructure.
"But the local tribes people are adamant and determined to stop us," the official said.
In 1984, India's Atomic Minerals Division found huge uranium oxide deposits at Domiosiat and then at Wakhyn, both in the West Khasi Hills, not far from the state's border with Bangladesh.
In 1992, the division completed its investigation and presented a final assessment of the deposit.
That was when the mining operations were supposed to commence - but never quite did.
The division's regional director in Meghalaya, B Huda, told the BBC the Domiosiat deposit was around 9,500 tonnes while that at Wakhyn was about 4,000 tonnes.
"At present levels, Meghalaya accounts for 16% of India's uranium reserves," Mr Huda said.
He says the quality of the uranium ore at Domiosiat and Wakhyn is much better than at India's other uranium mining area - in Jadugoda in the northern state of Jharkhand.
He says the recovery percentage at Jadugoda is 0.02 to 0.06, while the percentage is as high as 0.1 in Domiosiat.
There could even be more uranium in Meghalaya but the Atomic Minerals Division is no longer digging.
"If we cannot mine what we have found, which is a lot of uranium, why should we sink more money to explore?" Mr Huda asked.
Land battles
In Meghalaya, like in many other tribal societies of north-east India, land ownership is communal, not individual, and no villager enjoys property rights on land.
Moreover, the state government does not have the power to acquire land.
That is vested in the autonomous district councils that Delhi has created for the tribes people to protect their land rights, customs and way of life.
UCIL officials say they have been "running from pillar to post" between the Khasi district council and the Meghalaya state government.
Three years ago, the state government said it had in principle given the green light to uranium mining in the Domiosiat-Wakhyn area.
But when UCIL started moving earth-cutting equipment into the area, Khasi district council officials rushed in to protest.
The council says it owns the land and the state government - or the federal authorities - cannot acquire it.
Now the district council has granted permission for UCIL to "conduct exploratory surveys" but not to undertake commercial mining.
"That does not help us. We are where we were," says the UCIL official.
Khasi politicians and students who oppose uranium mining have raised environmental concerns not easy to brush away.
Student leader Sounder Cajees says: "Look at Jadugoda. It has been in the press about how the tribes people there have suffered from radiation hazards, how callous UCIL has been in disposing of uranium waste and how it has seeped into the local groundwater system and the crop chain."
The former president of the Khasi Students Union, Paul Lyngdoh, says: "Our people cannot suffer because India wants our uranium for making nuclear bombs and missiles. For us, it is our people first and India comes after that."
However, Khasi nuclear physicist, Mary Jwyra, says the tribal leaders are overreacting.
"If done scientifically, and if all care is taken for proper waste disposal, there will be no threat to the environment or the local people," she says.
At the moment, no politician in Meghalaya is prepared to back a commencement of mining, although some admit that allowing it would be good for the economy.
"Our royalty would be substantial and the growth of infrastructure in the West Khasi Hills would be a boon," said BB Dutta, a former economist turned politician.
But the fear of radiation, and of falling prey to diseases caused by it, still haunts the Khasis.
Until that is taken care of, mining uranium in their hills will not be easy.

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