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Jaherthan, The Sacred Grove Of Adivasis In Jadugoda, Is Drowning In Nuclear Waste

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Jharkhand’s Jadugoda is one of India’s biggest kept secrets- it is the land of a uranium mining facility since 1967 under the Uranium Corporation of India Limited. The company has a processing mill where raw uranium is enriched and in this process, a huge amount of lethal radioactive waste is generated, which is then dumped near the nearby residing Adivasi population.

The Jadugoda mine in the Purbi Singhbhum district of Jharkhand is the first uranium mine in the country, according to UCIL’s website. The deposits were discovered in 1951 and the mine commenced operation in 1967. The mine is located 640 metres below the earth’s surface and can be accessed with a 5-meter diameter vertical shaft. A 2014 report stated that the Jadugoda mine produces up to 25% of the raw materials needed to fuel India’s nuclear reactors.

The uranium mines and purification plant operated by the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) at Jadugoda since 1967. The mining of uranium and enriching it generate lethal radioactive waste.

According to this report,”UCIL now controls six underground pits and one opencast operation that stretch across 1,313 hilly acres, extracting an estimated 5,000 tons of uranium ore a day, generating an annual turnover of $123 million. It supplies nine of the reactors that help India produce plutonium for its arsenal of nuclear weapons, and is thus considered vital to India’s security.”

The impact that it has had on the Adivasi communities living nearby, is, however, beyond measure in numbers. The uranium and nuclear industry have turned Adivasi lands into a nuclear dump yard. These dump yards, called tailing ponds, are enormous in size.

The Tailing Ponds

UCIL has forcefully built 3 tailing dams in Jadugoda since its establishment and these are anything but safe. The tailing pond is completely open, with no sign of any kind of cover. This is problematic for a number of reasons-

  1. These tailing ponds were made in areas where people are residing nearby. This means people cannot help pass by close to the tailing ponds, increasing exposure to harmful material.
  2. The radioactive dust ashes fly all over the village in the hot winds of summer, contaminating the grounded water. Radon emanated from the tailing ponds spreads contamination.
  3. Not only are Adivasis nearby exposed to gamma-ray contamination, but the radioactive waste from the tailing ponds also seeps into water supplies of nearby villages during monsoon, increasing contamination.

When Dipak Ghosh, a respected Indian physicist and dean of the Faculty of Science at Jadavpur University in Kolkata took his team to study the water of Subarnarekha to verify the facts on a claim that the river was poisoned, they found some disturbing results.

The water was adulterated with radioactive alpha particles that cannot be absorbed through the skin or clothes, but if ingested cause 1,000 times more damage than other types of radiation. In some places, the levels were 160% higher than safe limits set by the World Health Organization,” said Ghosh.

When they traced the ill health of people along the course of the river, Ghosh’s team came upon the source- East Singhbhum’s mines, mills and fabrication plants in Jadugoda.

IAEA Safety Standards Disposal of Radioactive Waste states under Protection of People and The Environment that the disposal facilities are to be developed in such a way that people and the environment are protected both now and in the future. As seen above, this is clearly not followed in Jadugoda.

The tailing dams, which are mandated to be constructed in a protected manner, are very close to human settlements. Villages like Tilaitand, Chatikocha, Pajharkocha, and Dungridih are at a distance of just 15-20 metres from the tailing dams. These villages have been around since before the Indian Government even came into existence. It isn’t the villagers who built homes near the tailing dams, it is UCIL and the Central Government that built tailing dams near human settlements, something that should have never happened in the first place.

Moreover, a critical question remains unanswered:

Who will be responsible for taking care of the tailing pond when the stock of uranium ends in the region and the company shuts down?

Uranium waste will keep emitting radiation for thousands of years to come, so what is to be done with this waste and who will take responsibility for it?

The Fourth Tailing Pond And Jadugoda’s Resilience

In the year 2014, the third tailing dam in Jadugoda was completely filled with waste, so UCIL now needed new land to construct a fourth tailing pond.  When UCIL gave the proposal for the same to the villagers, the villagers protested with the leadership of Ghanshyam Birulee, the President of the Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation.

Ghanshyam Birulee, the President of Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation leading a protest, 2017

After seeing the mass protest, UCIL failed to grab land. However, on one hand, UCIL was in dire need of land, because if there is no land, where would they dump radioactive waste? On the other hand, Adivasis stood their ground and refused to give up the land they rightfully have lived on for generations. The Indian Government, moreover, has a terrible reputation when it comes to compensation and rehabilitation of displaced Adivasis and tribals.

UCIL, after seeing that the villagers weren’t going to give up their land, plotted a dangerous plan to construct the fourth. They decided to build it on the first tailing dam.

This decision shook the entire community in Jadugoda. Until then, no such plan was ever heard of. This also didn’t make sense, because the foundation of the first tailing pond wasn’t strong enough and the technology used to build it wasn’t updated enough to build another tailing pond on it.

In the 1980s, the first tailing pond cracked and radioactive waste leaked out. A state of Emergency was declared in Jadugoda for three nights and three days until the engineers and workers stopped the leakage and covered the crack. The UCIL covered its massive crime.

Jadugoda In 2020: The Tailing Pond And The Destruction Of Jaherthan 

Currently, the extension of the first tailing dam into the fourth tailing dam is in progress. UCIL has already started dumping the waste in this so-called fourth tailing pond.

Along with numerous devastating and dangerous side effects, it has also led to the extinction of the Adivasi Jaherthan, which is the sacred grove of worship for the Adivasis. The Jaherthan is situated in between the first and third tailing dam. The seepage from the tailing dams has drowned the land sacred for Adivasis.

The Jaherthan of village Chatikocha, Jadugoda submerged in radioactive seepage water from the tailing dams.

Ghanshyam Birulee, the president of Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation (J.O.A.R) in an interview, said, “The Jaherthan is an asset which does not belong to a particular village, or the village headmen or the village Priest, it belongs to the entire Adivasi community.”

Since ancient times, when Adivasis moved to a new place to form a new village, they first made a Jaherthan and only then would they build houses for shelter. This is an open place mainly surrounded by Shakua trees. This is the place where the Adivasis worship nature, the Marangburu and Jaheraayo for the safety of the villagers and for the balance of nature.

Nobody from the community is permitted to cut trees from the Jaherthan. There is a Jaherthan in every village and its safety and existence is considered more important than the village itself. Without the Jaherthan, the village has no identity. The Jaherthan helps protect and sustain the religion, customs and beliefs of the Adivasi community.

Villagers worship at Jaherthan which is located between the 1st(on the left) and 3rd (on the right) tailing dams. The Shakwa trees in Jaherthan, also known as Sal trees considered holy by the Adivasis are all dead due to high levels of radiation. Year of photo: 2013

The UCIL has a pattern of blatant disregard and destruction of Adivasi lives and their culture, tradition and beliefs. To ensure economical costs of mining, the Government, which is supposed to FOR the people, has put Adivasi lives in grave danger. Their choice to construct the tailing ponds near Adivasi settlements and dismissing Adivasi demands is proof of this.

Demand For Rehabilitation Goes Unheard, UCIL Denies The Existence Of Radiation Pollution

Villages impacted by UCIL’s activities, Chatikocha among others, have also been demanding rehabilitation, but to no avail. UCIL has not acknowledged their demands and the need for their protection, because according to them, there is no radiation pollution.

Numerous studies on the negative impacts of radioactive waste disposal on the health and environment, like this one by Professor Hiroaki Koide from Kyoto University, Japan prove them wrong. However, the Indian Government and UCIL continue to remain in denial and refute all claims.

Uranium mining authorities and management need to acknowledge and listen to the demands of the villagers and fulfil them at the earliest. Treating Adivasis like guinea pigs for research purposes in nuclear science, inventions and discoveries are unacceptable and a violation of our rights.

The Adivasis’ right to life, land and the right to protect their identity and culture are undeniable human rights and should be prioritised above disruptive development practices whose danger and ill effects the world is now waking up to. 

Note: This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.

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