National Security or Development? Uranium Mining in Meghalaya

Uranium mining in Domiasiat in Meghalaya?s West Khasi Hills district under the initiative of the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) has created havoc among local residents. Under the Atomic Energy Act, the central government has all right to take control of the area and initiate mining operations.. Nevertheless, there is stiff opposition from the local people and the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC). Some sources say that the growing nuclear arms race in South Asia has created pressure to exploit the Domiasiat yellowcake reserves.

The Atomic Mineral Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMDER) in 1972, declared that Domiasiat was a potential area for mining. This was confirmed in 1986, and followed by drilling in 1992 up to 1996. This was then abandoned there after protests from local residents and social/developmental organisations.

Uranium is to be found in parts of the Garo Hills and the East Khasi Hills besides Mawsynram in West Khasi Hills, Karbi Anglong in Assam and Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh. The West Khasi Hills is the largest district of Meghalaya and is very rich in natural resources. It has large reserves of coal, limestone, uranium and granite But in spite of such abundant resources, the district is not as developed as would be expected. Development of human resources, higher standards of living, greater awareness of environment protection and practical understanding of sustained development are still lacking. The Government has claimed that the Domiasiat project if implemented, ought to bring about a positive development in the socio-economic situation in the West Khasi Hills and Domiasiat in particular.

Since mining began, the Hills have witnessed an increase in instances of cancer. Many villagers also reportedly suffer from mysterious diseases and the number of miscarriages among women has increased. There is an obvious and alarming threat to the lives and livestock of the Khasi tribal region. The local Congress government in a recent announcement said that it would not take any hasty decision without proper study and expert opinion. The AMDER insisted that adequate precautions would be taken if uranium mining was begun, and the issue of public health hazards in the mining areas would also be addressed. Also, the Meghalaya Peoples? Human Rights Council (MPHRC) and the Hill State Peoples? Democratic Party (HSPDP) have strongly opposed any move to carry out uranium mining stating the incidence of health hazards. But the UCIL claimed that there was no truth in reports that children born to people living near the site would suffer from congenital defects, including skeletal deformities.

India’s main uranium mining operations are in the neighboring state of Bihar, and have resulted in horrific human and ecological health problems. The coal mining in Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya is another prominent example with all the negative impacts.

With the help of Northeast India Council for Social Science Research and three organizations Engineers India Ltd.., Development Project India Ltd.., and the North Eastern Hill University, the UCIL is working for a positive solution. According to UCIL that the Domiasiat area has 0.1 per cent uranium deposit, meaning 1 kg uranium per metric ton of rocks, the Corporation would opt for the safe opencast mining process and set up a plant at an initial estimated cost of Rs 450 crore. The scientific mining of uranium would ensure total safety to human life and the environment.

Experts are of the opinion that once the uranium potential of the State is unearthed, Meghalaya could well turn out to be the richest state in the Northeast. Experts have also felt that the lure of uranium deposits could very well see foreign direct investment pouring in to the State, as many giant multi-national corporations would like to have a share of the cake. Above all, the project would also generate employment opportunities for local tribals.

The Atomic Minerals Division ahs claimed that the uranium found in Domiasiat was of “very low grade” and would be used essentially for generating power not to make nuclear bombs and thus hoped to convince the people of the benefits of uranium mining. But social organizations ask whether Domiasiat should remain undeveloped because uranium mining has not begun? Local residents are not in favour of development in exchange of poison.

Pride in being the citizen of a country that is also a nuclear power should not hide the truth that 40% of those who live in the sensitive environment of the Khasi hills, live in poverty, especially women and children. About 30,000 people are likely to be displaced by full-scale mining in the area.

by Snehasis Das

(Published in Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, August 18, 2003)