by Raveena Aulakh – Toronto Star
Indian court trying to unravel mystery of sick and disabled children, miscarriages and fatal cancers around the country’s first uranium mine.
Jadugora, India—Duniya Uram wants to go outside.
The veranda is only 10 metres away, but it is a struggle. Her face is streaked with sweat in the 45C heat as the 16-year-old crawls across the cement floor, putting one thin forearm in front of the other. Halfway, she stops to take a deep breath, then continues to the mesh door at the veranda. She uses her head to open it.
What should have taken a few strides takes five minutes.
As always, her brother Alowati, 18, follows.
Their older sister Budhini, 26, looks on grimly.
“My parents were sad when they found that Alo … wasn’t OK,” she says. “But they never thought the next (child) would be the same.”
Neither Alowati nor Duniya can walk, nor can they hold anything; their limbs dangle lifelessly. Their legs are skeletal, their arms slightly stronger. Their knees and elbows are rubbed raw from crawling. They can’t speak in sentences and gesticulate loudly when they want something. They can’t feed themselves. They need help to bathe and use the toilet.
Children with birth deformities like Alowati and Duniya live on almost every street in Jadugora, a leafy town surrounded by hills and rivers in eastern India, as well as in neighbouring villages. There are young women who have had multiple miscarriages, and men and women who have died of cancer.
No one knows why.
Now, an Indian court wants to unravel the mystery of what is happening in Jadugora, the hub of India’s uranium mining industry since the late 1960s.
Uranium is at the core of India’s energy ambitions.
Demand for electricity in India is increasing rapidly, fuelled by the country’s phenomenal population and economic growth. The subcontinent was the fourth-largest energy consumer in the world after China, the United States and Russia in 2011. Coal is the country’s primary source of energy, providing about 68 per cent of electricity. Gas and hydroelectricity each supply 12 per cent.
Mithun Patro’s mother came home one day last summer to find the teen collapsed on the mud floor. “I cannot be with him all the time,” she says. “How will we eat?”
But coal reserves are limited, and gas and hydro are considered unreliable. For instance, if the monsoon season is weak, hydroelectric power output drops. And the country’s energy experts say nuclear power is cheaper than coal in the long run.
Today, nuclear power provides less than 5 per cent of India’s electricity. The aim is to make it 25 per cent by 2050. This month, Australia signed an agreement giving India access to its vast supplies of uranium.
But activists say Jadugora is paying the price for India’s nuclear dreams.
The city of 20,000 is 1,400 kilometres from New Delhi in east India’s Jharkhand state. Jharkhand is one of the poorest areas in India but one of the richest in biodiversity and natural resources, with vast unspoiled forests and pristine rivers. It has some of the country’s biggest reserves of coal, iron ore, mica and limestone.
It also has uranium.
Large deposits of the radioactive element were discovered in the late 1950s, leading to the creation of the publicly owned Uranium Corporation of India Limited. Mining started in 1967.
Thousands of tonnes of low-grade uranium ore are mined every year — 1,000 kilograms of ore are needed to extract just 65 grams of usable uranium.
At Jadugora, the ore is mined, milled, refined into yellow cake and sent to the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad, a 1,000-kilometre trip south by road and rail. There, the yellow cake is converted into uranium oxide, processed into nuclear fuel and sent to one of India’s almost two dozen reactors.
It sounds simple and precise.
The deformities, the miscarriages and the sickness around the mine are anything but.
When mining started in Jadugora, workers went into the bowels of the earth and came up with uranium ore. They dug with shovels, hauled the ore back to the surface in pails. Despite new technologies, hundreds of workers still do that.
The Indian city of Jadugora has large reserves of coal, iron ore, mica and limestone. It also has uranium.
Until a decade ago, miners took their uniforms home to be washed by their wives or daughters, says Xavier Dias, a political activist who has worked for decades with the indigenous people who made up the majority of the mine’s workforce.
“They never wore masks then … or boots. Or even gloves.”
The workers were free to take building materials from the mine and even waste material, which they used to build their homes, he says.
When people began to notice that young women were having miscarriages, witches and spirits were blamed. Prayers were said to ward off the “evil eye.” But people had lesions, children were born with deformities, hair loss was common. Cows couldn’t give birth, hens laid fewer eggs, fish had skin diseases.
“If you ask the tribals (as the indigenous people are known) who have lived there for decades, long before uranium was discovered, they will tell you that they lived healthy lives, drank from the rivers, ate fruits and vegetables … and they never saw the inside of a hospital,” says Dias.
“The difficulty is that you can’t get uranium without bringing up two dozen other radioactive materials, which are far more dangerous than uranium itself,” says Gordon Edwards. He is a professor of mathematics at Vanier College in Montreal, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and one of the best-known opponents of uranium mining.
When the ore is crushed and the uranium is extracted with acid, the waste — and 85 per cent of the radioactivity that was in the ore — ends up in tailing ponds, says Edwards.
Each particle of radioactive tailing “remains toxic for hundreds or thousands of years.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that high intakes of uranium “can lead to increased cancer risk, liver damage, or both. Long-term chronic intakes of uranium isotopes in food, water, or air can lead to internal irradiation and/or chemical toxicity.”
Pregnant women and their fetuses are at particularly high risk from consuming contaminated food and water, says Edwards. Long-term exposure can cause genetic damage so that “even future grandchildren or great-grandchildren can suffer the effects.”
Is this what is happening in Jadugora? Is radiation at the crux of the mystery of children with deformities and miscarriages? Or is it a strange coincidence?
Mining conditions began to improve in the mid-1990s. Workers were no longer allowed to take their uniforms home — they were washed at mine laundromats. They now wear protective boots and gloves, Dias says.
But much remains the same.
For example, the process to extract uranium requires conversion into slurry. The leftover sludge is sent to tailing ponds, which are supposed to contain the radioactivity.
In Jadugora, tailing ponds take up more than 65 hectares — and they are all uncovered with easy access for people and animals. A few homes stand fewer than 50 metres from the pond’s edge. There are some no-trespassing signs, but children still play cricket or hopscotch nearby. Another tailing pond a few kilometres away sits beside a busy street with pipes constantly delivering more sludge.
The tailing ponds tend to overflow, especially during monsoon season, say villagers. If that happens, radioactivity can seep out and contaminate the groundwater and rivers. River water is used for washing and bathing, sowing and irrigation — and sometimes for drinking.
Trucks filled with yellow cake or mine waste trundle day and night along the highway. The cakes are covered with flimsy plastic covers; sometimes bits of rubble fall off.
Uranium Corporation of India Limited has always maintained there is no radiation pollution in Jadugora and that its mining operations have nothing to do with the health issues. The company did not respond to several telephone requests from the Star seeking interviews about workers, tailing ponds and health concerns.
The Jharkhand High Court is also looking for answers.
In March, it sent a notice to UCILasking for an explanation for the deformities, cancers and miscarriages around the Jadugora mine. It based the notice on local media reports, which included shocking pictures of children who were sick or deformed. (The demand was made by the court unilaterally, without a filing by officials or victims, in what is known as a suo motoaction.)
According to local reports, UCIL told the court that the radiation emitted through its mining is under permissible limits and contained within a safe zone. The court refused to accept the submissions because they were old.
In August, the court also asked that the company disclose the radiation levels and the presence of any heavy metals in soil and water in the cluster of villages around Jadugora. It also asked UCIL to explain how it ensures the safety of those who live near radioactive waste.
The answers are due in November.
Those at the forefront of the fight aren’t hopeful.
“It is not that we have no expectations … we just have no history (of answers) to go by,” says Ghanshyam Birulee of the Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation, which has been seeking answers from UCIL and the federal government since the 1990s.
Birulee’s father, Jayram, worked at the Jadugora mine from 1963 to 1975. Birulee remembers his father bringing his uniform home for his mother to wash. “That wasn’t all: My father used to bathe once a week … he slept like that (possibly contaminated) every day. There were no safety rules in place, no regular health checkups for miners.”
Jayram died of lung cancer a few years ago.
A 2007 report by the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, a non-profit, found a far greater incidence of congenital deformity, sterility and cancer among those living within 2.5 kilometres of the mines than those living 35 kilometres away.
Young women in villages close to the mine sites were also twice as likely to have a child with congenital deformities, the study said.
But UCIL has in the past cited a 1998 government-funded study that found no water contamination and said that illnesses in Jadugora could not be traced to radiation exposure. Critics, like Dias, say the study was conducted by the Mumbai-based Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, tainted by its association with the nuclear industry.
There has never been a comprehensive health study. That would require counting the dead and the sick, assembling genetic and medical histories, collating the results of doctors’ exams and testing for water and soil contamination at people’s homes.
It would take several years, and require a small army of professionals.
Budhini Uram lives roughly three kilometres from the centre of Jadugora. She spends all day, every day taking care of her younger siblings Alowati and Duniya. (Their mother is gone; Budhini won’t discuss the circumstances.)
She wakes them, helps brush their teeth, bathes them, feeds them three times a day and takes them to the washroom. If they want to watch TV, she turns it on. If they want to sit on the veranda, she brings them out. If they are cranky, as they frequently are, she sits and tells them stories. She has no idea if they understand a word.
Their father Pahari was 52 when he died in 2007 after working at the Jadugora mine for 20 years. For months before he died, he had a wracking cough and an intermittent fever.
He built a two-storey cement house with a grassy backyard that has a well and a bathroom with a Western-style toilet. There is a TV in the living room. The kitchen is in the backyard so the smoke doesn’t make Alowati or Duniya sicker.
Once a month, Budhini takes Alowati and Duniya to the bank to get their pension money — about $150 a month for both — which started after her father died. Alowati and Duniya hate going out. They scream and cry. Duniya once tried to jump out of the auto-rickshaw taking them to the bank. Budhini dreads it all month.
After the Ranchi court order, Budhini was surprised by a first-ever visit from two mine officials. They asked her for a list of things that would make life easier for her siblings.
“I said I wanted running water in the house and two wheelchairs. I also asked them that the pension be in my name so I don’t have to drag these two every month. It is really hard. I was very reasonable, right?”
They told her they would get back to her. That was in May. She has heard nothing since.
Mohammad Yusuf lives a few kilometres east with his parents and three sisters in a two-room mud hut painted bright blue. There is no electricity. They cook outside in a clay oven. They draw drinking water from a well, wash their clothes in a pond.
Mohammad is 13 but looks 7. Like Alowati and Duniya, he drags himself forward with his elbows.
Mariam, his mother, says Mohammad has never walked without support. He can barely talk and they don’t know if he understands what they say.
“I desperately wanted a son and he came … after three girls and this was it,” she says, as she wipes away tears.
The girls have taken him to a hospital in Jamshedpur, the closest big city. Doctors told the family they don’t know what is wrong.
A few huts away lives Usha Gope.
Her son, Sunil, is 10 and though he can walk and talk, his eyelids are turned inside out, his white-grey eyes constantly water and his vision is weak.
Sunil rubs his eyes constantly. A few minutes later, he asks his mother if he can go back to sleep.
“It is the only time that I think he is not in pain,” says Gope, cradling a year-old girl who looks normal and healthy. “But who knows. She may turn out to be a cripple, like Mohammad.”
Most of the families with disabled children don’t know what is wrong or why. For most, it is what fate has dealt them. Their children never leave home — they eat when they are fed, leave the bed when they are assisted. Sometimes, they aren’t safe even at home.
Mithun Patro, 19, almost died last year because he was left alone too long.
His arms and legs dangle and he is as thin as a scarecrow. He doesn’t talk but gestures with his head and eyes. His mother, Mani Patro, 52, is his only caregiver. They live in Jairo Bhutto, a village about 10 kilometres away that has no roads.
Her husband used to work at the mine but is now a daily wager at a farm; she collects firewood from the forest and sells it to neighbours.
One day last summer, Mani left Mithun for a few hours. When she returned, he was on the mud floor in the kitchen where he had collapsed while trying to get a glass of water.
“I cannot be with him all the time … how will we eat?”
While families of children with deformities will tell their stories to reporters, the families of women who have been unable to get pregnant or who have had unexplained miscarriages often don’t.
Since Jadugora’s health problems made the local newspapers, few families receive marriage offers for their daughters. In a country where not being able to bear children is such a stigma that women are either thrown out by their in-laws or banished to their parents’ homes, Jadugora women are now tainted and unwanted.
Bhanumati Kalindi is 24, an age in rural India when young women are already married and bearing children. She is pretty, cooks well and is respectful. But Sushaso, her mother, says when she has tried to find a groom for Bhanumati she has been rebuffed by families as far as Ranchi, 250 kilometres away.
“They think because my husband worked at the mine and died of a stomach tumour, there is something wrong with my daughter, too,” she says. She points out that she gave birth to four children and “none of them have any deformities.”
“I have been looking (for a groom) for four years,” she says. “Maybe it will never happen.”
Budhini Uram knows marriage will never happen for her.
“What are the chances?” she asks stoically one afternoon. She has too many things against her: her father worked at the mine for 20 years, fell sick suddenly and died, and she has two siblings with severe deformities.
Her two younger sisters and two older brothers are all married and have healthy children. But the marriages took place before Jadugora made headlines.
Budhini, like others in Jadugora, is aware that the court is asking for explanations. She is more optimistic than most. But she is pragmatic, too, when she says it will not change her life. “I would like to get married and have my own family but what will happen to these two if that happens? There is no one to look after them. I will always be with them.”
She washes the cups, puts them away in a rickety kitchen cabinet.
The electricity, which cuts out intermittently, kicks back on and the ceiling fan starts swirling. Alowati and Duniya, who have been sitting on the porch, see the lights go on and want to come in. Budhini scoops up Duniya by her arms and carries her in.
Alowati, as always, quickly follows.
Raveena Aulakh is a reporter at the Toronto Star covering the environment.