‘I’ve Seen My Own Relatives Die Of Radiation’: Life As An Activist’s Son In Jadugoda

Beginning with very blurry memories of 1996 when I was just five years old: Back in those years, there was an ongoing struggle led by AJSU (All Jharkhand Student Union) for a separate state of Jharkhand, which was then a part of Bihar. My father, my baba Ghanshyam Birulee, was an active member of AJSU from his college days. People who were active in the struggle were listed as “wanted”. I can still recollect, though very little, some nights in my childhood which were spent without my father, not knowing he is going underground to keep himself safe somewhere.

With my father, during my photo exhibition at the International Uranium Film Festival in Tatanagar, 2014.

My baba is a great storyteller, and one such night when we were all ears listening to my father’s story, we suddenly heard the haunting siren of a police jeep. My maa rushed in and asked my father to hide himself in the “Aading”, which is a sacred room which only family members could enter. My sister and I had no idea what was happening. Soon after, we heard loud knocks on the door. My maa opened the door and I could see everything from the bedroom. There were five men in khaki with guns on them asking about my baba in a very aggressive manner. My maa responded to them in our native language which the policemen couldn’t understand properly. She warned them that they could search for him, but cannot enter our sacred room. If they did so, it would be a serious violation of our traditional beliefs and they would be punished in the court of the village Gram Sabha. Moreover they would be charged with a fine of four black hen and a white cock. They couldn’t dare to enter our home, but for years I would get mortified by wailing sirens and policemen.

Baba was concerned with a lot of social issues, the effects of radiation from uranium mining in Jadugoda being one of them. Initially, my father worked as an apprentice in the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL). However, after learning of the consequences of their work, he chose to quit his apprenticeship. He then initiated the Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation (JOAR) and is still working devotedly for the betterment of the affected villagers in Jadugoda. JOAR is the first organization to raise a voice against the adverse effects of uranium mining in India. For its long term contribution towards the people and the environment, JOAR was honoured with the prestigious Nuclear Free Future Award in 2004. I was a very proud son, my baba was my hero and I admired what he was doing. So being an activist’s son, it would seem obvious for me to follow in his footsteps. However, I was never asked or expected to get involved in activism.

With Achai Baskey of Rajdoha village. He is a mentally and physically disabled child.

Ever since I was a kid, I would tag along with him to meetings with activists and other such gatherings, idling on his lap while he discussed the grave concerns and issues faced by our people which were left unacknowledged by the government. Little did I know about the living circumstances of the natives of Jadugoda, also said to be the best kept secret of India. The one thing I was aware of, was that my father is a fighter, he is fighting for the rights of the community he belongs to. One of the most important lessons I have learned from baba is of being brave, standing tall and strong for one’s rights, even if one has to stand alone.

Baba Never Taught Me How To Be An Activist; He Only Inspired Me To Become One

I was always glad to be his helping hand and with my broken English and fluency in local dialects, I was the mediator to his visitors; most of them foreign activists and photojournalists. I had the privilege of spending time with protesters and social impactors from around the world, but I was still not fully integrated into this world and well aware of the issues they dealt with. Baba let me dictate my own pace to my destiny that is still in the making.

Interpreting for a Japanese visitor who came to meet us in 2001.

A Coin Has Two Sides

I was sent away to study in a convent school when I was five because baba wanted to keep me from the darkness of the cancerous radiations coming from the untreated Uranium dump in the vicinity of our village. It had already impaired and killed many natives of Jadugoda, including my own grandparents. My father had a choice to not protest, but choose to grow individually and bring us up like a normal family. However, he had a larger picture in mind for the betterment of the present and future generations to come.

I too, had a lot of situations of dilemma while choosing something which doesn’t promise or guarantee a stable life. But I have inherited a deep understanding from my baba that when your people, your land, your forest and river need you the most, you have to give up your most cherished dreams. It may be easy for me to say this because I have a supporting family, but it’s hard at the same time because I don’t have any other alternative apart from fighting for my own people’s rights. I have witnessed my own relatives and villagers dying because of radiation. Living in such a danger zone, there are possibilities that I could become the next victim of radiation.

Anamika Oraon, for the first time in my frame
Anamika Oraon during a health camp in 2015.

It was in 2011 when I got my first meaningful exposure to photojournalism while working on a documentary project about the Subarnarekha river of Jharkhand. Later that year, I got to work with Mr. Hajime Kimura, a Japanese photojournalist who wanted to document Jadugoda. Since it is a highly restricted area for a foreigner to click around freely, I got the opportunity to capture some pictures wherever he could not, but unfortunately, that project wasn’t completed.

A while later, a great mentor and close friend Shriprakash, a documentary filmmaker and a National Award Winner, suggested that I make a documentary on my own. Being from Jadugoda, I would be able to capture it with an emotional lens that only a dweller can perceive. What has the village gone through? How did it turn from being beautiful and fulfilling to an alluring and dangerous place to live in? I also started documenting for our organization to help with data collection.

In 2013, I got the chance to exhibit my yearlong work at the International Uranium Film festival (IUFF), Ranchi. My work was appreciated and well received and was further exhibited at the Museum of Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013. I had even more opportunities to exhibit my photos in Canada, Japan and in different regions of India. It has always been my motive to spread more awareness in all possible ways, that whatever suffering we, the Jadugoda people are going through, shouldn’t be faced by any other communities and groups. I also know this isn’t enough, I still have a lot to experience, learn and a lot to offer to the society as an activist and a photojournalist.

Siblings Olabati and Duniya Oraon.

I cannot forget what I’ve learnt from my baba, which is “To realize a change in society, bring the change upon you first.” We as common people tend to ignore and overlook issues until we feel like we can’t escape them, rather than standing together to fight for what we deserve. Make people aware of their rights, surroundings and their duties as a civilian; keep them alert and aware to achieve a greater participation in ongoing and future protests against anything unfair.

Last but not the least, I also learned with experience that holding on to our Adivasi culture, beliefs and our language makes us stronger and united and discourages the perpetrators from violating us.

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