Meghalaya in turmoil over uranium mining

By Syed Zarir Hussain


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Shillong : The mountainous northeastern state of Meghalaya is in turmoil over a government plan to allow uranium mining with several groups, including student unions, rights bodies, and environmental organisations, opposed to the move.

Protests have become strident with the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board planning a public hearing Tuesday at Nongbah Jynrin village, about 135 km west of capital Shillong, to elicit local opinion on uranium mining.

The influential Khasi Students' Union (KSU) has called a 36-hour statewide general strike beginning 5 a.m. Monday to prevent the public hearing from taking place saying emission of radioactive uranium would pose serious health hazards.

"No degree of prosperity could justify mining and accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances. The move poses an incalculable danger to the locals," John F. Kharshiing, chairman of the Federation of Khasi states, a powerful tribal assemblage, told IANS.

According to surveys by India's Atomic Energy Department, there could be up to 10,000 tonnes of uranium in and around Domiasiat, about 150 km west of here. The area is considered by far the largest and richest sandstone-type deposits available in the country.

The ores are spread over a mountainous terrain in deposits varying from eight to 47 meters from the surface.

After initial operations, the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) was forced to wind up the open-cast mining in the mid-90s following a string of violent protests from villagers.

The state government is once again trying to revive the project through a public hearing planned Tuesday to drum up local support.

"There are lots of wrong notions and rumours spread by vested interests saying uranium mining would pose serious health risks. But studies conducted by experts does not indicate any such worries," said a senior official of the Pollution Control Board.

Uranium is an important mineral ore for making nuclear weapons, with experts saying the untapped reserve at Domiasiat could be a potential resource for India's nuclear research programme.

The mining project, which was estimated at Rs.3 billion in 1992 and now revised to Rs.8.14 billion, is being opposed by the Hills State People's Democratic Party and Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement – both partners of the ruling Congress-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance government.

Joining the bandwagon of protests are the KSU, the Meghalaya People's Human Rights Council, and the Langrin Youth Welfare Association.

"I shall never allow my land to be used for uranium mining. I am prepared to die but never give up my fight," said Spillity Langrin Lyngdoh, an 80-year-old woman, from Domiasiat area.

A majority of the tribal Khasi villagers in and around Domiasiat complained of ailments like dry cough coupled with severe chest pain.

There could be up to 30,000 people spread over 25 villages in the vicinity of Domiasiat. The mystery diseases, locals say, started showing up soon after miners began exploring a 10-square km area in Domiasiat for the yellowcake, sometime in 1991.

"There were no such diseases prevalent among the locals in the area prior to the mining operations," Kharshiing said.

A small group of locals led by tribal elder Heas Dienglan are, however, supporting the mining.

"We think the area surrounding Domiasiat would benefit a lot once uranium mining begins. We were told the UCIL would set up schools and colleges, hospitals and provide employment to the locals," Dienglan said.