Kyelleng-Pyndengsohiong, Mawthabah (KPM) uranium mining project is located in the West Khasi Hills district of the state of Meghalaya in the North East region of India. Formerly this project was also known as Domiasiat uranium mining project. The Atomic Mineral Directorate for Exploration and Research in 1972 found evidences of uranium deposits in the area which was confirmed by 1996 after intensive drilling between 1992 and 1996. This uranium reserve is hosted in a thick pile of sandstone within a depth of about 50 m with underlying granite rocks. Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) proposes to mine it using open pit mining method up to a depth of 45 m with ore to overburden ratio of 1:6.7. The processing plant will be constructed at Mawthabah. The pit will be concurrently backfilled with mill tailing and overburden. These deposits have an average grade of about 0.10 percent of U3O8, which means that to obtain 1 kg of uranium 1 tonne of uranium ore will be required. It is estimated that KPM deposit in Meghalaya will last for 25 years. After mining uranium ores, they are normally processed by grinding the ore materials to a uniform particle size and then chemically treating the ore to extract the uranium. The milling process commonly yields dry powder-form material consisting of natural uranium called “yellowcake”.
The major deposits of uranium identified in the country are following:
i) Singhbhum, Jharkhand; ii) Rohil- Ghateshwa, Rajasthan; iii) KPM, Meghalaya; iv) Vempalle Formation, Cuddapah Basin, Andhra Pradesh; vi) Srisailam sub-basin of the Cuddapah basin, Andhra Pradesh; vii) Gogi area of the Bhima Basin in Karnataka.
It is estimated that Meghalaya accounts for 17 percent of total uranium deposits in the country while Jharkhand accounts for 45 percent, Andhra Pradesh 27 percent and Rajasthan and Karnataka 4 percent. Presently, uranium mining and processing is being done only in Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. Rest of the places, operation has yet to begin or is in the different stages of initiation. India’s uranium resources have been updated to 140296 tonnes of U3O8.
India accounts for about 1 percent of the total uranium deposits in the world. The biggest producers of uranium are Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia and they together account for more than 60 percent of world uranium production. Other important uranium producing countries in excess of 1000 tonnes per year are Namibia, Russia, Niger, Uzbekistan and the USA. A prominent use of uranium from mining is as fuel for generating electricity in nuclear power plants. It is estimated that the present world uranium ore resources is sufficient to produce fuel for about a century based on current consumption rates.
Problems in Meghalaya
KPM project in Meghalaya has been mired in controversy right since its inception forcing the UCIL to stall its activities till local population agrees to give their land voluntarily. Although, UCIL received environmental clearance for this project from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India only on 20 December, 2007, it was making efforts to initiate the activities much before this date. Every time UCIL expresses its intent of beginning project activities, it leads to unrest in the region forcing UCIL to retreat. The resistance to this project is so strong that UCIL had to come out with a new strategy to split the project into stages for implementation. Stage-I included pre-project activities for infrastructure development, etc. and stage-II included construction of mine and plant. Govt. of Meghalaya has approved taking up the pre-project activities by UCIL at a cost of Rs. 209 crore. The expressed intent of stage-I including pre-project activities is to convince local population about the beneficial nature of the project. However, UCIL could not even begin pre-project activities as sustained protests by the local groups last year forced state government to withdraw its assent to UCIL till all issues are resolved.
A conglomeration of NGOs, civil society organizations including the powerful Khasi Students Union (KSU) is leading the agitations to prevent UCIL from starting the site activities. Opposition to uranium mining is based on following concerns.
1. Safety to miners: Uranium emits radon gas, which is a carcinogen. This is especially dangerous in underground mines. KPM being an open mine, this may not be similarly dangerous. However, safety of miners remains an issue as high amount of dust containing traces of uranium and other toxic heavy metals may still be dangerous.
2. Health Impacts: UCIL has not come clean on the health impacts on population living in the surrounding areas of mining sites. Tailings dams contain high amount of toxic heavy metals which have the potential to contaminate the water resources. Ill effects of uranium mining including the congenital defects have been reported from Jaduguda areas in the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. Although UCIL has denied it citing its own reports people’s experiences have been different from what UCIL claims.
3. Environmental impacts: Environmental impacts of any mining activity are huge as it severely contaminates air, land and water leading to irreversible damage to local ecosystems. The area having the fragile ecosystems has been environmentally protected by the tribal people due to their own ways of life.
4. Displacement: Displacement remains to be one of the biggest issues in any large projects like this as Indian state’s record in adequately compensating displaced people is horrific. The UCIL has proposed to acquire 10 square kilometers of land in the uranium deposit areas of the West Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. About 30,000 people are likely to be displaced and the UCIL has promised to provide 85 percent of the jobs to residents in the area. Displacement is a big issue here as all the land to be acquired belongs to the local tribal population or to the Autonomous District Council as the area falls under the supervision of sixth schedule of the Constitution of India.
5. Invasion of outsiders: Last but not the least is the whole issue related to the influx of “outsiders”. The project will bring large number of people from outside the state who remain alien to the language and culture of local indigenous Khasi tribal population thus posing serious damage not only to the local demography but also to their culture to which the group is very protective.
History of resistance
As mentioned above there have been series of movements against the KPM uranium mining project in Meghalaya. Way back in the year 2000 when UCIL announced that the local council had given them permission to begin the site activities, KSU appealed to the local village head man to withdraw the order immediately (Reuters, Nov. 27, 2000). Later, in the year 2003 when UCIL officials turned to begin the activities the local tribal people chased them away calling them “agents of death” (." (BBC News May 5, 2003)). When this controversy was simmering the then Chief Minister of Meghalaya D. D. Lapang announced constitution of a high level committee to examine all issues related to the project (Shillong Times, July 24, 2003). All these forced UCIL to state that they will start the project only after people of the area extend them wholehearted support (Assam Tribune Aug. 26, 2003). Later, a series of movements such as rallies, strike were observed against the project in the area especially when UCIL sponsored delegation consisting of local Council members visited Jaduguda to ascertain the truth themselves. On April 12, 2005, the organizations fighting against setting up of the project erected a gate at Domiasiat in West Khasi Hills in order to check unauthorized entry into the area. The organizations - KSU, MPHRC, Dorbar Shnong of Domiasiat along with land owner Spillity Lyngdoh Langrin - who set up the gate warned people against passing through the gate to the area, identified for the proposed uranium mining project, without seeking prior permission from the land owner concerned ((The Shillong Times, April 14, 2005))
The resistance once again flared up in the year 2006 when Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) Chief Executive Member Mr HS Shylla said that the KHADC submitted its recommendation to Meghalaya Chief Minister DD Lapang on April 11, 2006, in favour of the proposed uranium project at Domiasiat-Mawthabah in West Khasi Hills (The Shillong Times, April 13, 2006). On May 3, 2006, the Khasi Students' Union (KSU) took a decision to physically prevent the proposed laying of foundation stone of the new road from Wahkaji to Mawthabah by the Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Dr Anil Kakodkar on May 9, 2006 (The Shillong Times, May 4, 2006). The road which was financed by UCIL through the KHADC had ultimately to be shelved Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Dr Anil Kakodkar expressed his inability to attend the programme slated for May 9, 2006 (The Shillong Times May 7, 2006).
The issue became alive once again as the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board (MSPCB) decided to hold a public hearing on the proposed KPM uranium project on June 12, 2007. KSU called for 4-day road blockade in Shillong from June 6, 2007 against the proposed public hearing by the MSPCB. Normal life was completely disturbed during the period (The Telegraph, June 8, 2007). The majority of people who attended the public hearing opposed the mining project (The Shillong Times, June 13, 2007). Once environmental clearance was granted to this project in December 2007, another spate of movements began as KSU launched road blockades, rallies and general strike.
In 2009, the Congress led Meghalaya State Government, keen to begin the project activities by UCIL as early as possible and also to keep itself away the whole controversy started considering exempting the Land Transfer Act from the uranium rich belt in Mawthabah so that the UCIL can set up a processing unit there without clearance from the District Council and the state government (Indian Express, Aug. 11, 2009). On August 24, 2009, the State Government of Meghalaya agreed to lease land to the UCIL for 30 years in the uranium-rich West Khasi Hills district for "pre-project" developmental works, which, it said, should not be linked with mining (The Shillong Times 24 Aug 2009), which was nothing but to fool people as stage-I (pre-project activities) was to lead to the stage-II of the project plan for construction of mine and plant. To split the project into two parts was a strategic decision of UCIL ostensibly to convince people about the goodness of the project as mentioned earlier.
Both these decisions were violently opposed by KSU and other organizations compelling the state government finally to suspend the pre-mining development activities in the area. Government decided to form a joint committee on uranium mining in Meghalaya consisting of experts from the KSU and the Coordination Committee of Social Organizations and government representatives. The committee will examine all issues related to uranium mining within three months and submit the findings to the government (The Telegraph, Nov. 5, 2009). Later, the state government formed a 33-member committee to go into the various aspects of uranium mining in the West Khasi Hills district. The committee comprising members from various NGOs, experts from both the governmental and private along with Ministers has been asked to give its report within three months (The Shillong Times, 16 Feb 2010). The first meeting of the joint committee on uranium mining was held on March 2, which was boycotted by groups opposing the uranium mining in Meghalaya. The boycott by Khasi Students Union (KSU) and Co-ordination Committee of Social Organisations (CCSO) was prompted by the inclusion of a pro-mining group, the Associations of Meghalaya for Development and Advancement (AMDA), in the joint committee (The Telegraph, March 2, 2010).
A Meghalaya assembly panel on March 19 recommended that the government take up a uranium mining project in the West Khasi Hills district without further delay but subject to some conditions. The 10-member committee, headed by Congress legislator H.D.R. Lyngdoh, made the suggestion regarding the KPM uranium mining project in its report tabled in the assembly. Lyngdoh heads the committee on Welfare of Scheduled Tribe/Castes and Other Backward Classes in the Meghalaya assembly. The committee recommended that the government set up a dedicated health service unit and environmental survey laboratory by UCIL to monitor the workplace and environment at the mining site. The unit should be independent of administrative control of UCIL so that proper reports are available, it said. It also wanted UCIL to hold medical camps in surrounding villages at least once in a week to provide free medical check-ups and medicines. UCIL should also provide assistance in literacy and education programmes to the locals (IANS, March 19, 2010).
Uranium Mining Project in Balpakram
KPM uranium project in West Khasi Hills district is not the only source of uranium related controversy in Meghalaya as UCIL plans to explore uranium in Rongcheng Plateau of Balpakram National Park in South Garo Hills district of the state. However, the Environment Ministry's National Board on Wildlife (NBWL) has rejected the uranium mining project in Balpakram National Park in Meghalaya after stiff opposition from various quarters. The decision to reject the proposal of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was taken in New Delhi at a meeting of the Standing Committee of the NBWL headed by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh (PTI, May 13, 2010).
The Balpakram National Park (declared a National Park since 1987) is located in the extreme of South Garo Hills at a distance of 90 kms. from Baghmara, the district headquarters of South Garo Hills. This is also close to the international boundary of Bangladesh. This is one of the richest biodiversity parks in the country. Hullock Gibbons, the only ape species found in India can be seen here. Elephants, deer, the Great Indian Hornbill, wildcat, are found in the park with some rare plant species such as Pitcher Plants, Orchids and Drosera gracing the park.
Uranium mining is a vexed issue world over. The health and environmental impacts of uranium mining is too huge to be ignored. It has adverse health impacts on the future generations as well. Then managing huge solid wastes of ores processing plants is an associated problem. Mining uranium is closely linked with the issues of nuclear power. After Three Mile Island accident in 1979 in Pennsylvania in USA and Chernobyl disaster in 1986 in Ukraine in the then Soviet Union the world opinion has shifted against the nuclear power as risks are too high. In Meghalaya, on top of these issues is the issue of displacement of indigenous tribal population. Mulling democratic opinion in this regard will only be a recipe for disaster.
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