India’s unyielding quest for uranium

| 25th November 2019
Nallamala hills
Wikipedia
India's interminable quest for uranium rides roughshod over environmental and health concerns and democratic processes.

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The Indian Prime Minister is no stranger to the art of doublespeak. Modi lauded conservation efforts in India as he launched the Status of Tigers in India Report in July this year, describing the country among the ‘biggest and safest habitats for tigers in the world’.

More recently - in an alternately loved and lampooned reality television show aired on Discovery Channel - the Prime Minister spoke eloquently of his love for nature and his government’s commitment to the environment and particularly to tiger conservation efforts

Yet, in May this year a Forest Advisory Committee at the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change granted approval in-principle to a proposal of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to ‘survey and explore’ uranium deposits over an area of 83 sq kms in the Nallamala forest, home to the Amrabad Tiger Reserve in the State of Telangana. 

Dissent

Somehow this did not appear to weigh down on Modi. Neither did the multiplicity of dissenting voices from civil society organizations, political opposition, tiger conservationists, nor environmentalists against the proposed uranium exploration and mining deter the Government from staying the course.

If anything, there have been steady efforts to clamp down on dissenters and activists such as Prof. Kodandram, who was detained by the State Police while on his way to meet and express solidarity with the protesting communities.

But that has not deterred protestors who have come together to vehemently oppose the government’s plans. An online people’s petition to ‘Save Nallamala and Stop Uranium Mining’ has garnered over 22,000 signatures over the last two months.

In an important albeit fractional ‘win’ for the people’s resistance movement, the Telangana State Legislative Assembly passed a unanimous resolution on 16 September 2019 ‘urging’ the Central Government to revoke its approval for uranium mining in the Amrabad Reserve – the Resolution however, is little guarantee that the Centre, which is resolutely pursuing a massive expansion of India’s capabilities along the entire nuclear fuel cycle, will heed these voices on the ground.      

Nallamala forest is spread over seven districts across two contiguous States of India – Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and is home to not only the Amrabad Tiger Reserve – among the biggest in the country, but also the fast-dwindling Chenchu Tribe who live deep in the heart of the forest and have been designated a ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group’ (PVTG) by the Central Government; the 2011 population census pegs their number at 47,315.

Diversity

This is not the first time that the Chenchus have been confronted with the prospect of eviction from their traditional lands. Litigations since the late 2000s in various High Courts and the Supreme Court of India by “retired forest officials, wildlife activists and conservation NGOs”, have challenged the constitutional validity of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, and have called for a revocation of the hard-fought forest rights of adivasis and other forest-dwelling communities, arguing that the recognition of such rights will be disastrous for both forests and the wildlife – a claim that activists argue is deeply flawed and empirically feeble. 

The Amrabad Tiger Reserve, spread over 2,800 sq kms across the districts of Mahabubnagar and Nalgonda of Telangana, had earlier been part of the ‘Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger reserve’. However, following the bifurcation of the State of Andhra Pradesh, the northern part of the reserve fell under the State of Telangana and was renamed the ‘Amrabad Tiger Reserve’.

The Reserve is reported to include “around 70 species of mammals, more than 300 avian varieties, 60 species of reptiles and thousands of insects, all supported and nourished by more than 600 different plant species”. With over 18 tigers and a spectacular variety of wild animals such as, the panther, sloth bear, wild dog and herbivores like the spotted deer, Sambhar, wild boar etc., the news of the proposal to mine this pristine forested area, has understandably, caused much concern.

Apart from the rich diversity of flora and fauna in the forest, activists argue that the area is also of significant archaeological import – ‘the remnants of the ancient Nagarjuna Viswa Vidyalayam run by the great Buddhist scholar Nagarjunacharya (150 AD), relics of the fort of Ikshwaku Chandragupta, ancient fort of Pratap Rudra and several others’ dot the banks of the Krishna river. 

Exploration

The proposal for uranium exploration and mining in the area is not new to the central Government in India, which has been toying with the idea for several years now.

In a written response to a question in the Upper House of Parliament in 2015, the Central government had stated that the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD) had ‘located significant uranium deposits in parts of Nalgonda District, Telangana’.

In 2017, in its 41st meeting, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) - purportedly India’s apex wildlife conservation body - had approved the proposal for uranium exploration and mining in the Amrabad Tiger Reserve.

The NBWL enjoys notoriety for fast-tracking and clearing a record number of ‘developmental’ projects in designated Protected Areas, particularly under the new BJP-led government which is now in its second consecutive term.

Impacts

In 2016, the Field Director of the Amrabad Tiger Reserve Circle had conducted a field inspection to assess the potential impact of the proposed uranium exploration on the forest. In his report, the Field Director minces no words in stating that mining will result in “erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes.

"Besides creating environmental damage, the contamination resulting from leakage of chemicals also will affect the health of the native wildlife. In these areas of wilderness, mining may cause destruction and disturbance of ecosystems and habitat fragmentation”. 

The report goes on to recommend that permission ‘may not’ be given to the ‘user agency’. It is no less worrying according to environmentalists and activists that the proposed mining will be in violation of the Wildlife Protection Amendment Act of 2006, which disallows “any ecologically unsustainable land use such as, mining, industry and other projects within the tiger reserves”, as well as the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) which recognises and protects the rights of forest dwelling communities, such as the Chenchu Tribe, and requires their approval before any developmental activity can be undertaken in areas which fall under the PESA. 

The stated objective for seeking environmental clearance for the exploration of uranium deposits in the region by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) is to ‘augment uranium resources and locate new uranium deposits’ for the ‘quantum jump’ that India is set to take “in harnessing electricity through the nuclear route”.

For the exploration, it is estimated that nearly 4,000 deep holes will need to be drilledwhich conservationists argue will not only annihilate already endangered species of plants and animals but also contaminate the surface and groundwater.

The fact that the area identified for carrying out the mining survey is a stone’s throw away from the catchment area of the Krishna River - on which the Nagarjunasagar and Srisailam reservoirs are built - and that the exploration will contaminate the river with radioactive pollutants is a key concern for environmentalists. 

Pollution

The people of the region however, are no strangers to the devastation caused by uranium mining. In Andhra Pradesh from which the State of Telangana was carved out in 2014, the underground Tummalapalle uranium mine has been in operation in Kadapa District since the earlier part of the decade, and its environmental and health impacts have become too stark to ignore.

Panduranga Rao, former Sarpanch from Nalgonda District, worries that the health impacts of uranium mining including, cancers of various kinds, reproductive health issues in adolescent girls and women and crop failure - akin to that documented around the Jadugoda uranium mines in Jharkhand in Central India - are now being seen in the villages around the Tummalapalle facilities, causing immense fear and resentment among local communities. 

The trouble began in 2017 when agriculturists in the area around the Tummalapalle mine, dependent on drip irrigation, noticed that their banana plantations had been steadily drying up and were yielding little to no produce. Dr K Babu Rao, a retired senior scientist from the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), who has been closely associated with the farmers’ movement, told me that after a sample of the water was tested by the local centre of the State Agriculture Department it was surmised that the water was ‘unfit for farming’.

In addition, bore wells in the area had begun to run dry and in some places, even drilling up to 1000 meters yielded no water. Moreover, some water samples collected from the bore wells had revealed an increase in the percentage of uranium and other minerals. 

Contamination 

Following this, the farmers made several representations to the District Collector and local political representatives regarding groundwater contamination due to mining activities as well as the dumping of waste in the tailing pond at Kottalu village which is roughly at a distance of about 8 kms from the project site.

In response, expert committees have been instituted on various occasions and water and soil samples from the area taken for testing. However, Dr Rao argues that there has been no genuine effort on the part of the local administration or representatives of UCIL to address the people’s concerns.

Instead, consistent attempts were made to rubbish their claims and deny them an equal voice by refusing permission to experts such as, Dr Rao to represent the farmers, even as the UCIL brought in scientists from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to argue on its behalf about the ‘safety’ of the mining project.     

The charge that UCIL operations had caused ground water contamination and resultant sickness and infertility of agricultural land is not one that the UCIL faces for the first time. There have been countless instances of tailing pipe bursts and leakages, dumping of radioactive waste in unmanned, unlined and uncovered ponds, from where it leaks into local water bodies used by communities for fishing, drinking and bathing, and enters the ground water and the food chain.

The UCIL and larger nuclear establishments continue to remain in abject denial of the devastation that uranium mining has wrought on those living in the vicinity.

One of the members of the expert committee that was formed following the directions of the Jharkhand High Court in 2016 to examine ‘the effects of uranium radiation in Jadugoda’ is also the former director of the Radiological Safety Division of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). He is reported to have said that the diseases afflicting the communities of Jadugoda could be attributed to “economic backwardness, smoking habits and malnutrition” - not radiation.  

Vindication

Dr Rao doesn’t expect any better from the recent ‘committee of experts’ set up on the initiative of the newly elected State Government of Andhra Pradesh to look into allegations by communities around the Tummalapalle uranium mine.

The committee is comprised of government scientists and ‘experts’ from the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), as well as the Mines, Geology, Groundwater and Agriculture Departments of the State government and academics from the Indian Institute of Technology, Tirupati. This committee can hardly be expected to make an impartial assessment, argues Rao.

It is this lived experience of the people that keeps them on the edge as the government moves in to open up newer fronts in its interminable quest for uranium and rides roughshod over environmental and health concerns and democratic processes in pursuit of its nuclear dream.

However, a recent survey by the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) has revealed dangerously high and concentrated levels of uranium in groundwater samples in the Lambapur-Peddagattu region of Nalgonda district in Telangana, where the Uranium Corporation proposes to set up an open pit and three underground mines.

This has come at a time when communities in Telangana are up in arms against the proposed uranium exploration in the famed Amrabad Tiger Reserve, and as communities in the neighbouring State of Andhra Pradesh fight a forlorn battle to get the state government to acknowledge that their ground water has been contaminated by the Tummalapalle uranium mine – the AMD report is perhaps an important even if unfortunate vindication.  

This Author

Sonali Huria is a PhD research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. Her research is focused on the people's resistance in India against nuclear energy and the post-colonial state's repressive responses.

Image: Choconaz, Wikipedia. 

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