Thursday, 1 Mar 2001

JAMSHEDPUR, India

Major newspapers covered yesterday’s event, and the local organizations have planned a protest.

Last night, I decided not to go back to Delhi, and decided instead to visit other neighboring areas facing environmental problems. My first priority is to visit the Jaduguda uranium mines, which is a five-hour drive from Ranchi.

It’s 9:00 a.m., and by now, everyone is finished with his or her breakfast and most of the participants are planning to leave by noon. I have connected with Ravi from a group called Samtha (they work with indigenous people in south India) to take me to the Jaduguda mines.

Now it’s 9:30 a.m., and I am leaving for a uranium mining area with Ravi and Xavier. The ride is very comfortable, and by 2:00 p.m., we have arrived. There are three mining sites operated by Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL), a state-owned company. The mining areas have been cordoned off, so we visit a village situated next to a tailing pond. The village of Thalendi has a population of about 2,000 and is severely affected by radiation from these mines.

A visit to Thalendi.

We visit local activist Ghanshyam Biruli, from Jharkhand Organization Against Radiation (JOAR), and he tells us the heart-wrenching fact that, in a survey of women in a one-kilometer radius of the dumping grounds, 43 percent of pregnancies had failed to go to term, while 17 percent had resulted in stillbirths. All of the women suffered from disrupted menstrual cycles and fatigue. Around 100 children had been diagnosed with skin, lung, or blood cancer.

He tells us that the only protective gear provided to the workers is a small muslin cloth to cover their faces. People in the village now consider begging better than working in these mines, because what they thought would bring jobs and prosperity has given them only physical and mental grief.

I go out to speak to some of the women in the village, and everyone has the same story about her suffering because of these mines. It’s not only the health problems they face, but also the social stigma, as men are not willing to marry girls from these areas because of reproductive disorders. In the past, the villagers would celebrate when a woman in the family got pregnant, but now they dread the news because of rampant stillbirths and mentally and physically handicapped babies.

The villagers take us to the unfenced tailing pond situated on a small hilltop. International norms recommend burying nuclear waste deep underground and disposing treated, low-level waste in well-fenced areas far from human habitation. Here, the pond is only yards away from people’s homes. During the monsoon, an overflow from the mine runs into the river where villagers drink and bathe. Nuclear waste from around India is sent to the Adivasi (indigenous people) homelands and dumped in tailing ponds.

Recently, uranium mining has been proposed in Meghalaya, another northeastern state. Toxics Link India is providing information to people there and linking them with people working in Jaduguda in an effort to save people from similar irreparable mental and physical damages. The government has not taken any action, but they do tell the people they should feel national pride since the uranium for the Pokhran blast came from their area.

It’s time for us to leave for Jamshedpur, as we are staying ov
ernight at Xavier’s house. Back in the car, I think how often poor people are exploited by corporations or states in the name of development or national security. The only comfort I can find is Gandhi ji’s saying, “My faith is brightest in the midst of impenetrable darkness.”