Jadugoda, India – “They took away my land,” 35-year-old Agnu Murmu told Al Jazeera, days before he died. “I begged them to give me a small truck… but they gifted me with cancer.”
Murmu, according to social activist Ghanshyam Birulee, was just the latest casualty of radiation pollution in Jadugoda, a tribal heartland in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.
His house sits dangerously close to a tailing pond, where the government-run Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) discharges waste from its mining operations. Murmu’s mother said the family knew nothing about radiation when mining began here about five decades ago.
“Like other unsuspecting parents, I would also allow my children to play near the tailing pond and catch fish from the canal that I know now is contaminated by radiation pollution,” said Rakhi Murmu, 52, with tears spilling down her creased cheeks.
“Uranium mines have ruined our lives. I know they won’t rest till they bury us all in those pits.”
Spontaneous abortions and miscarriages
Radioactive waste generated by three government owned mines – Narwapahar, Bhatin and Jadugoda – has spurred fears of a health crisis in the region.
Residents say they suffer from a number of diseases linked to radiation pollution, including congenital deformities, sterility, spontaneous abortions and cancer – yet mining continues unabated near these Indian villages, without proper security measures in place.
Dumping of radioactive waste by the roadside or near the villages may be putting even more people at risk.
Many women in Jadugoda who suffer from radiation-related health problems say they are treated as social outcasts, including Jingi Birulee, 42. She was born with conjoined middle and ring fingers on both hands.
“Initially, it did hurt when all my friends got married one by one, and I was left alone to lead a life of isolation and rejection,” Birulee told Al Jazeera.
“But now I thank my stars that I didn’t get married and have children. I am really concerned about the fate of Jadugoda girls, now. They are called baanjh (sterile) and dragged out of their inlaws’ house.”
Social activist Ghanshyam Birulee, who runs a non-profit called the Jharkandis Organisation Against Radiation, said there were no issues in Jadugoda before the advent of mining.
Today, however, spontaneous abortions and miscarriages are common: “Now, Jadugoda girls and boys are finding it difficult to find a match for themselves,” he said.
Several surveys conducted by independent agencies, including Japan’s Kyoto University and India’s Jadavpur University, have confirmed radiation pollution in the air, water and soil in Jadugoda.
Independent nuclear scientist Sanghmitra Gadekar, who conducted a survey on 9,000 villagers living in and around mines, has documented cases of congenital deformities, infertility, cancer, respiratory problems and miscarriages.
“Labourers were given only one uniform a week,” Gadekar told Al Jazeera.
“They had to keep on wearing it and then take it home. There, the wives or daughters wash it in a contaminated pond, exposing them to radiation. It’s a vicious [cycle] of radioactive pollution in Jadugoda.”
Gadekar said her survey not only shows excess of congenital deformities among those born after the start of mining operations in 1967, but also extremely high levels of chronic lung disease, “quite likely to be silicosis or lung cancer, in the company’s mill and mine workers.”
“In the villages near the UCIL facility, nine children had died before they were a year old; eight of them had congenital deformities. While there were six recorded premature deaths in the control villages, these were all due to more common causes like fever, diarrhoea, and premature birth,” she said.
“Similarly, while seven men and seven women in the control areas had deformities, the nearby villages revealed as many as 52 men and 34 women with deformities,” said Gadekar who also edits AnuMukti (Liberation from the Atom) – an anti-nuclear journal in India.
Low grade Uranium
The ore in Jadugoda is of exceptionally poor quality, meaning more soil has to be dug and lifted. According to India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the ore extracted from this mine is of 0.065 grade, meaning the plant needs to process 1,000kg of ore to extract 65g of usable uranium.
UCIL spokesperson, Pinaki Roy, acknowledged the uranium ore found in Jadugoda is of low grade compared to countries such as Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan – but “whatever we have, we have to make do with that”, Roy told Al Jazeera.
However, Roy said “the very word uranium brings about a lot of negative feeling and one should just come out here and see how we helped change the lifestyle of these tribal people.”
This has prompted criticism from anti-nuclear-proliferation activists, such as Xavier Dias, who noted: “If uranium ore found in Jadugoda is of low grade, why mine it when you can buy uranium in the open market today?”
The DAE did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment on the matter.
In Jadugoda, radiation is omnipresent – in the air, water, earth and plants.
According to a survey by India’s Jadavpur University, which focused on radiation pollution in the Subarnarekha River near the Jadugoda uranium mines, high levels of radioactivity were detected in all water samples, even those far from the mine sites.
Dias has also cited concerns about the impact on the nearby city of Jamshedpur.
“Jamshedpur is being affected and nobody is talking about it,” he told Al Jazeera. “These are dust particles that fly around. They enter the water, they enter the fauna [and] flora, they enter the food system.”
Nitish Priyadarshi, a geologist who has surveyed radioactivity in Jamshedpur and Ranchi, said while uranium particles cannot travel that far, “its sister elements like radon gas, which damages lungs and kidney, can travel to the city and take the already high radioactivity to alarming levels.”
India’s nuclear energy generation capacity stands at 4,780 megawatts (MW), just two percent of India’s total installed electrical capacity of 230,000 MW.
The country plans to source a quarter of its energy from nuclear power by 2050, but it is unlikely to reach that ambitious target; the Indian nuclear authority, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited has repeatedly missed nuclear-energy targets over the years.
Ultimately, India does not have sufficient uranium to sustain a large-scale conventional nuclear programme.
And as renewable energy is promoted under India’s ambitious solar and wind power programmes, the case for nuclear power has been losing traction among policymakers.
Indeed, India’s BJP-led government set aside $93m for solar projects in its maiden budget, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley declaring: “New and renewable energy deserves a very high priority.”
But whatever the government policy, Jadugoda’s 50,000 tribal residents continue to stand exposed to a danger which the activists say “nobody cares about”.
“The government and the company don’t give a damn whether the tribal people live or die,” said Ghanshyam Birulee. “The government is treating us as guinea pigs to fulfill its greed for Uranium.”