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India’s uranium mines cast a health shadow

Published Dec 04, 2011 10:11pm

JADUGUDA (India): Gudiya Das whines as flies settle on her face, waiting for her mother to swat them while she lies on a cot in Ichra, one in a cluster of villages around India’s only functioning uranium mines.

The 12-year-old, whose skeletal frame makes her look about half her age, was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy when she was a year old.

“Back then there were 33 disabled kids here, now there are more than a hundred,” her father, Chhatua Das said in his home in Jaduguda valley in the eastern state of Jharkhand.

For Das and his wife Lakshmi, who have lost six children before the age of one, there is only one possible culprit -- the nearby mines run by the state-owned Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL).

“I know there is some connection between the mining and what’s happened to my daughter,” Lakshmi said. “It’s because of the uranium in the water here.”

Environmental groups say the mining company is polluting the groundwater by dumping radioactive waste inside three so-called tailings ponds that hold the sludge produced by the mining process -- a charge vehemently denied by UCIL.

UCIL opened its first mine in Jaduguda in 1967, and has built six more since then, providing work for thousands of local villagers in what was a deeply impoverished area.

With starting salaries of 14,000 rupees ($280) a month, jobs with the mining firm are highly coveted and bring a level of economic prosperity that adds a conflicting layer of complexity to the health risk issue.

Jharkhand is one of India’s poorest states, with more than 40% of the population living on less than $2 a day, according to 2007 World Bank figures.

Ghanshyam Birulee, founder of the Jharkhand Organisation Against Radiation, believes the financial benefits are meaningless when weighed against what his group says is an alarming rise in stillbirths, birth defects, and adults and children diagnosed with cancer, kidney disease, and tuberculosis.

“How did these illnesses suddenly become so commonplace here? It’s because our valley has become a dumping ground for all this nuclear trash,” Birulee said.

“Jaduguda” means “magic fields” in the local language Sadri.

“These days it feels like there’s black magic at work here,” said Birulee, a former apprentice at UCIL who lost both his parents to cancer.

“When people first started getting sick, they thought it was because of witches or evil spirits. We had never seen anything like this,” he said.

UCIL firmly denies any links between its operations and any health issues in Jaduguda.

“The grade of ore is very low, so the level of radioactivity is also very low. If you are 100-120 metres away from the periphery of the tailings ponds, you face no risk,” said A.K. Sarangi, deputy general manager for strategic planning at UCIL.“We acquired land for several people here and tried to help them move, but they refused. Their intention is to extract as much money as possible from the company now,” Sarangi said.

The company cites a 1998 government-funded study that found no water contamination and rejected the idea that illnesses in Jaduguda could be ascribed to radiation exposure.

Critics say the study, carried out by the Mumbai-based Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, was tainted by association with the nuclear industry, and cite a 2007 report by the non-profit Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD).

That report showed a far greater incidence of congenital abnormality, sterility, and cancer among people living within 2.5 kilometres of the mines than those living 35 kilometres away.—AFP