In Domiasat, in the West Khasi hills of northeast India there is trouble brewing. The story dates back to 1976, when the Atomic Minerals Division (AMD) of the Atomic Energy Commission set up its Northeastern Circle Office at Shillong, in Meghalaya. The AMD, known successively as the Rare Minerals Survey Unit and the Raw Materials Division and currently renamed the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMDER), soon commenced uranium exploration in the state and discovered large deposits of uranium oxide in Domiasat and Wakhyn, both in the West Khasi Hills, not far from the border with Bangladesh, in 1984.
The Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL), a state-owned company under the administrative control of the Department of Atomic Energy, and the only body authorised to mine uranium in India, soon formulated plans to set up a uranium-processing unit at Domiasat. This naturally enough provoked protests by various local organisations, which were conveniently ignored by the company. An assessment of the deposits was completed in 1992 and exploration activities carried on till 1996. By this time public opposition to the project had become strong enough to force AMDER and UCIL to terminate the exploration and abandon the location.
This retreat is clearly only temporary, and plans for mining operations have not been shelved. As the UCIL’s website puts it, “[t]he large sandstone type deposit discovered in cretaceous tertiary sedimentary basin … has been planned for commercial exploitation. Different mining methods and extraction techniques have been studied to find the most suitable alternative keeping the cost and the environmental impact as low as possible”. Mining has not commenced till date but that is no reason to believe that attempts will not be made in the future. The only factor that has come in the way of extraction is the strong local opposition.
The discovery in Domiasat is far too important for the nuclear establishment in India to give it up merely because of popular objection. For one, this is reckoned to be the largest and richest deposit to be discovered in the country so far. For another, the deposit is very near the surface and therefore will be more economical than the other UCIL mining operations, which are at some depth below the surface. The ore in Domiasat is spread over a 10- square-kilometer area, in deposits varying from eight to 47 meters from the surface. The significance of this can be gauged from the fact that at Jadugoda in the state of Jharkhand, the site of the UCIL’s largest uranium mine has been prospected to a depth of about 800 m below the surface and it is expected that it would continue further in depth.
More importantly, the uranium ore at Domiasat and Wakhyn is much better than at Jadugoda, in Jharkhand, which supplies the bulk of India’s uranium requirements. According to AMDER’s regional director in Shillong the recovery percentage in Domiasat is 0.1 percent, which compares favourably with US and Canadian recovery percentage of between 0.2 and 0.5. By contrast the deposits at Jadugoda are of relatively poor concentration, with the recovery percentage being as little as between 0.02 to 0.06. This grade is generally considered too low to be worth extracting.
“Yellow cake” bounties
Since India had very early decided on building up capacity in nuclear power„ an extensive geological survey had been undertaken in the 1950s to identify the domestic availability of nuclear materials. These exercises suggested that India had limited and poor quality uranium reserves and vast quantities of thorium deposits. Accordingly the Indian nuclear programme while relying primarily on thorium, envisaged the creation of reactor systems that would use to the maximum possible the limited stock of uranium. Hence the heavy investments made in Jadugoda, Bhatin, Nawapahar and other places.
Consequently, the Domiasat deposit introduces a different complexion altogether in the overall capacity of the Indian nuclear environment. Such mineral bounty — an estimated 10,000 tonnes of double grade uranium — gives it second place in the aggregate availability of the “yellow cake” (U3O8), after Jadugoda. But the Domiasat and Wakhyn deposits have by far the best concentration in India so far, thereby giving them an importance that is not lost on the nuclear establishment, particularly since, currently, all the uranium for India’s Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), comes from the lower-grade Jadugoda facility.
Both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the Domiasat deposit are significant in the overall context of the 15-year plan formulated in 1985, which proposed a mammoth expansion in capacity so as to increase the total national generating capacity to 10,000 MWe (megawatt electrical) from 1360 MWe being generated then from six nuclear units. This was to be achieved through the establishment of eight 235 MWe units and ten 500 MWe units.
Since this entailed the production of additional uranium, the plan envisaged increase in mining capacity, with a gross production of 1700t/y (tons per year) to meet the purified U3O8 need of all the reactors. By 2000, 18 additional plants that were to have come online. Of these, by the year 2002, nine had begun operating, while another nine, were reportedly under construction. Given this expansion in requirements it is not difficult to see why the UCIL has made a strong pitch for the ore in Meghalaya, which alone has, at current levels of identified deposits, roughly 16 percent of India’s reserves.
The UCIL. has applied for a mining lease to execute a USD 100 million project. But since 1992, when milling was supposed to commence on completion of the assessment report by the AMD’s regional division, UCIL’s attempts have so far not been successful, largely because of the scale of local ‘opposition to it. This resistance to the UCIL’s proposed activities are the result of both direct experience with the consequences of the company’s activities and familiarity with the effects of three and a half decades of mining in the nearby state of Jharkhand.
Domiasat has registered an extraordinary increase in child ailments and deaths, miscarriages, cancer and asthma- or tuberculosis-like conditions of dry cough and severe chest pain ever since UCIL operations commenced in the area. This is despite the fact that, as yet, the company has been able to undertake only very limited activity. This has given rise to justifiable fears among residents of the fear of radiation effects and boosted the resistance to mining. The even more damning evidence from Jadugoda only confirms the public’s reservations about giving permission to UCIL, for full-scale mining.
Jadugoda has suffered horrific costs in terms of both human and ecological health. It has witnessed disproportionately high incidence of cancer (especially leukaemia), congenital deformities, sexual impotence and reproductive sterility because of prolonged exposure to low-level radiation (see Himal May 2003). A 1998 survey in seven villages in Jadugoda located within a kilometre’s distance of the waste impounds from the mines, found that 47 percent of the women reported disruptions to their menstrual cycle, 18 percent had suffered miscarriages or given birth to stillborn babies in the previous five years and 30 percent reported fertility problems. Nearly all women complained of fatigue, weakness and depression. It also found a high incidence of chronic skin disease, cancers, TB, bone, brain and kidney damage, disorders of the nervous system, nausea, blood disorders and other chronic diseases. As a result of genetic damage caused by radioactive exposure children have been born with skeletal distortions, partially formed skulls, missing eyes or toes and fused fingers or limbs, often accompanied by brain damage.
Conscious of this legacy and its influence on the Domiasat opposition, UCIL, chairman-cum-managing director Raminder Gupta is quick to allay fears about the hazards of radiation. He maintains that reports about the health effects are baseless. Speaking to reporters at a seminar organised by the Northeast India Council for Social Science Research in June at the Raitong Building in Shillong on the “Environmental and Sociological Implications of Mining of Minerals and Oil Exploration in North-cast India” Gupta said, “these are rumours designed to prevent the development of Domiasat”. In keeping with timehonoured UCIL tradition, he emphatically denied that UCIL’s activities in Jadugoda had affected residents, Instead, Ile added, the tribal population in the vicinity of the mine has greatly benefited from the project because of the development it brought to the area.
Human Rights groups, NGOs and political figures in Meghalaya remain highly sceptical of these claims, and with good reason. UCIL has a notorious reputation for concealing facts and concocting data. For instance, in Jadugoda, following the 1998 report of an investigation by the environment committee of the state legislative assembly, the then UCIL technical director had written to the state government, regarding 54 people suspected to be suffering radiation-induced disorders, saying, “As regards the cause-effect relationship of these diseases with radioactivity, we can neither establish nor exclude the same at this stage”. Other institutions in the nuclear establishment joined the fray to endorse this whitewash. A medical survey recommended by the legislative committee was blatantly rigged. It was conducted by a medical team dominated by doctors from the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre, Bombay and which included the UCIL chief medical officer. To nobody’s surprise it found that the diseases in Jadugoda were not related to radiation, but to poor nutrition, malaria, alcoholism and genetic abnormalities.
Given this history of dereliction it is not surprising that there are few takers for the UCIL view on the development benefits to Domiasat. According to Dino DG Dympep, a Shillong-based human rights activist, “neither the government nor UCIL has done any health and environment impact assessment study”. The Rongbhasnong or the village headman of Domiasat says many villagers were suffering from mysterious diseases now, which were never reported earlier. His observation is endorsed by Hopingstone Lyngdoh, the local legislator to Meghalaya legislature and president of Hill State People’s Democratic Party, an ally of ruling Congress government in Meghalaya, adding that radioactive pollution is a serious possibility.
Meghalaya and Jharkhand
The resistance in Meghalaya to mining is active, vocal, articulate and well-informed. But in India, these attributes are not sufficient to ensure even a modicum of efficacy or success against projects undertaken in the “national interest” on lands belonging to people who do not belong to the cultural mainstream of the nation. In Jadugoda, the mining continues in blatant disregard of civilised norms despite a strong local movement involving organisations. like the Jadugoda Organisation Against Radiation, the Bindrai Institute for Research, Study and Action and other NGOs, besides left political groups. The fraternity that serves the Indian nuclear interest has not only been dumping radioactive waste there for the last 35 years, but have also since then extended the scope of their activities, the latest in the region being commencement of mining at Turamidh in the same district.
One of the reasons why UCIL can continue its activities with impunity is that the affected people are adivasis (tribals) of the Chhotanagpur plateau, mainly Santhals and Ho, ‘indigenous’ peoples who have been historically exploited and expropriated by successive centralised regimes run by the cultural and economic mainstream of India. Even the political forms that allegedly guarantee protection from this kind of expropriating dominance has also not been particularly useful for the adivasis. The creation of Jharkhand state was ostensibly to rectify the historical domination of the adivasis, but the structures and systems that modulate the politics of the state are such that the procedures of exploitation remain substantially the same. The difference is only in form. Today, an adivasi-elite, articulated to the incentive schemes of Indian politics, presides over the misappropriation of Jharkhand’s resources and the coercive subjugation of its people.
The lands on which the uranium deposits in Domiasat have been found belong to people of the Khasi tribe. In the more cultured conception of the Indian nation, tribes are a deplorable incongruity, useful at best for some ethno-tourism, but otherwise of such little merit that subjecting them to prolonged radiation in the national interest is a trivial issue compared to the immeasurable benefits to India from the additional generation of a few thousand megawatts of power, and perhaps even the detonation of a bomb or two. Jadugoda is proof of this attitude and the same fate may befall Domiasat’s Khasis.
But before that happens there are still some hurdles in the way of Domiasat has some advantages that Jadugoda lacked. As a relatively more recent target of the UCIL, it had the history of Jadugoda before it to evaluate the company’s many claims and promises. This is all the more so since Meghalaya is a far more literate society than Jharkhand, or the bulk of the lowland plains for that matter. Consequently, groups from Domiasat were able to mobilise opposition on an empirically demonstrable platform based on the history of destruction that UCIL left in its wake. This is important since early UCIL activity did not witness any organised opposition until much later when mining operations were well underway and had become part of an entrenched way of life. Generally speaking, it is a little easier to thwart or delay a project than it is to dismantle one that is already in operation.
The most significant factor in preventing full-scale mining activity in Domiasat so far is a seemingly small constitutional advantage that some hill areas in the Northeast have. Domiasat is in the Khasi Hill District. The sixth schedule of the Indian constitution provides for the autonomous administration of “Tribal Areas in the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram”. Under these provisions Domiasat is administered by the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council. Under paragraph 3 (a) of the schedule, the district council has the power to make laws with respect to the allotment of land.
As a result of this provision, neither the central government in Delhi nor the state government in Shillong can acquire the land for the mining lease, since that right rests exclusively with the district council. The UCIL’s lease application pending with the state government cannot move forward until the permission comes from the council. In fact, in 2000, the Meghalaya government admitted that it had in principle given the sanction for mining in the Domiosiat-Wakhyn area. But the Khasi district council members staged a protest as soon as UCIL brought earth-moving machinery into the area, forcing them to withdraw. When asked about the latest initiative from UCIL to push ahead with mining, David Langwi, Chief Executive Member of the district council said that mining must not be at the expense of the health of the people and the sensitive environment of the Khasi Hills.
The danger to Domiasat still remains for more than one reason. While the district council., being a smaller body, is more connected to the area than a distant legislature or executive would be, it can also be subject to arm-twisting by higher authorities. The council has not categorically ruled out the possibility of giving permission for mining. It has in fact has granted UCIL the authorisation to “conduct exploratory surveys”. Though for the present this stops short of permission to undertake commercial mining, there is no saying what the final decision will be. The provision relating to land in the sixth schedule also sates that the council can allot land for “any other purpose likely to promote the interests of the inhabitants of any village or town”.
Coincidentally, the UCIL’s spin doctors have launched a publicity offensive, harping on the benefits of the project and the safety measures that the company will be putting in place. The company says that the open-cast mining that is proposed for the site is safe. It has also pulled out the old Indian argument that popular protests against projects are obscurantist since they are motivated by disruptive elements to prevent development of the region. The promised development benefits include the rapid socio-economic progress of the entire West Khasi Hills.
Company officials claim that UCIL, has an outstanding track record in employment, health care, education, environment protection and upgradation over a period of 36 years. Therefore the company would create model mining practices, establish good hospitals, good schools in the area. It would also bring along good roads, banking facilities, telecom services, and postal services among other benefits. The chairman of the company also made it point to emphasis that the project would also generate employment opportunities for local people not only in the UCIL but also in auxiliary and ancillary services as well as self-employment in trade, transport and other services. Endorsing all this is the Khasi nuclear physicist, Mary Jwyra, who concurs with the official view and feels that the tribal leaders are overreacting. According to her, “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”.
Local organisations are not in a mood to buy these claims about the environmental precautions and the merits of open cast mining. As one representative of the Peoples Movement Against Uranium Mining, a parent body of NGOs in Meghalaya, put it, “We have seen the negative impact of coal mining in Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. The environmental hazards have affected all the water bodies, land and air in the locality. At least 50,000 indigenous people have been affected in Jaintia hills despite all the assurance and promises made to them. These have not materialised. We do not want the repetition of another disaster”.
But such resolve may not suffice in the face of determined lobbying by the UCIL. In the circumstances, it is difficult to predict whether the district council can hold out in the long run, especially since UCIL. has promised development benefits to the entire West Khasi hills. Rhetoric of this kind usually has a larger appeal, so that the health of Domiasat residents may well be sacrificed for the larger welfare of the Khasi hills. Even if the district council does hold out, there are other provisions in the schedule which circumscribe its authority. The governor of the state has certain extraordinary powers that he can invoke to bypass the district council should it prove stubborn.
Thus, under paragraph 1 (3) of the schedule, the governor of the state can by public notification exclude or diminish “any area” from within the purview of the autonomous district council or “define the boundaries of any autonomous district”. Paragraph 14 empowers the governor to appoint commissions of enquiry into the administration of such districts, particularly on the need for any new or special legislation, besides allocating to a minister of the state government the charge for the “welfare” of such districts.
In addition, paragraph 15 makes the validity of the acts and resolutions of the district councils contingent on the satisfaction of the governor. If the governor believes that a decision of the council is “likely to endanger the safety of India for is likely to be prejudicial to public order], not only will the decision be annulled, but additional steps may be taken to prevent the “commission and continuance” of such decisions. And all else failing, the governor can by public notification simply dissolve the district council, subject only to the condition that the dissolution is on the recommendation made by a commission of inquiry.
Whatever the final outcome, the spin-offs from the project look good only on paper. Although the UCIL has promised to provide 85 percent of the jobs to residents in the area, the fact is that about 30,000 people are likely to he displaced by full-scale mining. And it may not have to reach the stage of misuse of constitutional powers by the governor, since many families, frightened at the prospect of what is in store, have started leaving Domiasat and have settled in nearby villages like Allawarng, Pandeng and Kuboit. Only the poor remain since they have nowhere to go. This is the ideal condition for UCIL to make a strong pitch for mining on the grounds that the number of displaced will be very small. And since the remaining inhabitants are few and poor they are unlikely to mount any effective opposition to the project. For the UCIL, there will be added advantage of compensating fewer people, should it come to that.
To what extent the environmental and anti-nuclear movement in India can make an intervention in Domiasat remains to be seen. The latter in particular is restricted to the ‘heartland’ of the country and therefore its efficacy will depend on its capacity to expand its base to otherwise neglected corners, like the Northeast which has been the victim of the central governments policies of national integration. Even now, despite the protests that have been going on in Meghalaya, Domiasat does not figure very much on the agendas of India’s urban-based anti-nuclear movement. Issues such as mining and accidents at nuclear plants have been left to environmental activists, while anti-nuclear activists concentrate on issues of weaponisation and war. Unless they are able to include ‘remote’ areas inhabited by the people who do not matter, there is very little likelihood that they will get very far. Meanwhile, Domiasat’s future hangs in balance.