Uranium hunt knows no bounds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2002, 12:00am

Protests by activists and even lawsuits have not stopped the government-run Uranium Corporation of India Limited unleashing death and disease on one of the country's most backward regions, according to a leading non-governmental organisation.

The Centre for Science and Environment's spokeswoman, Sunita Narain, said: 'Whether it is the uranium mines in the hills of Jadugoda in newly-created Jharkhand province or remote areas where the Geological Survey of India is drilling for minerals, the callousness of various government agencies handling dangerous radioactive material seems to know no bounds.'

Ms Narain said there was no accountability, as victims were invariably poor and underprivileged. She said no one was ever punished for killing or maiming the victims.

Activists say radiation has killed more than 100 men, women and children since 1994 and caused large-scale radiation sickness among tens of thousands of poor tribespeople living in the shadow of the Jadugoda mines - which feed atomic power plants nationwide and also India's controversial nuclear weapons development programme.

New mines are also rapidly devouring fertile farmland as the demand for uranium keeps growing each year.

Hopes soared two years ago when the Supreme Court admitted a petition by a leading human rights campaigner, B. L. Wadhera for hearing.

The petition held the uranium corporation and the AEC responsible for deaths and radiation-related diseases - such as cancer, tuberculosis, congenital deformities, impotence and infertility - that are rampant in the region.

The court's decision to admit the case was hailed as a major victory by anti-nuclear groups, as it was the first time the industry was subjected to public scrutiny.

But the historic case made no difference. Some government officials continue to violate all safety norms and insist Jaduguda's health problems are linked to genetic disorders and malnutrition and have nothing to do with the uranium plants.

Equally unrepentant officials of the Geological Survey are trying to hush up the recent deaths of two employees who developed malignant cancers after allegedly being exposed to radioactive material. According to staff union leader S. B. Nandi, five others exposed to radiation are undergoing medical treatment for various skin diseases.

Mr Nandi said workers belonging to the survey's geophysical division come in regular contact with caesium while it is being transported to prospecting sites for detecting minerals.

Although the radioactive material is usually in lead containers, unskilled labourers load and unload the material without protective gear or training. Sometimes, dangerous radioactive material is kept in tents or even in the open.

A survey clerk who lodged an official complaint that boxes of radioactive material were stored near his desk for two years was summarily transferred.

Activists said a radioactive gamma-ray camera which went missing in Assam last month has still not been found.

The camera, used to examine pipeline weldings, was stolen while being transported by bus in violation of regulations.