Meghalaya’s people protest Uranium Mining. Starvation in Jalpaiguri’s tea gardens.

June 12, 2007 – Meghalaya in turmoil over uranium mining

Tribal groups blockaded highways in India’s northeast Meghalaya state on Wednesday, the start of a five-day campaign to protest government plans to mine uranium. Hundreds of trucks carrying food, medicines and other essential supplies were stranded, according to protesters and police.

The protesters say that uranium mining could affect the health of villagers in the area, home to the largest deposits in the country. Two highways passing through the state serve as lifelines to other parts of India’s northeast, including Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura states and parts of Assam.

“This curfew has hit hard the business community, tourists and people from the neighbouring states,” Hasina Kharbhih, a protester, said.

India plans to extract natural uranium in the tiny tribal state, close to the border with Bangladesh, as there is a shortfall of nuclear fuel in the country. Officials estimate there are up to 10,000 tonnes of uranium in and around Domiasiat, the area considered to have the largest and richest deposits in the country.

Locals opposed to mining said villagers around Domiasiat have reported an increase in the number of people suffering from cancer and women suffering from miscarriages in recent years after the state-run Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) started survey works.

“All these are quite alarming to the lives of our people and livestock. How can we allow the mining to take place?” said Mebanker Lapang, a leader of the Khasi Students Union, which spearheads the movement against uranium exploration in the state. UCIL says it has the most modern technologies to extract minerals without affecting the environment and human lives.

“We are trying our level best to convince the local population,” a senior UCIL official told Reuters by phone from the state capital Shillong.

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June 12, 2007 – Public hearing on Uranium mining amidst protests in Meghalaya

The Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board has called for a public hearing at village Nongbah Jynrin, about 135 km west of capital Shillong, to elicit local opinion on mining for the yellow cake.

The mandatory hearing is necessary for getting clearance from the Environment Ministry and subsequently from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) for carrying out the opencast mining.

“The hearing is going to be held as per schedule before noon Tuesday with all top Board officials already arriving in the village,” Meghalaya Chief Minister D.D. Lapang said.

Security forces have been deployed in strength in the area with the powerful Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) enforcing a 36-hour general strike from 5 a.m. Monday to prevent the public hearing from taking place, saying emission of radioactive uranium would pose serious health hazards.

Life in Shillong has been paralysed with all shops, businesses and government offices remaining closed for the second day Tuesday due to the strike called by KSU.

“We shall continue with the fight and see to it that the Uranium Corporation of India is not able to take up exploration work. The health hazards and risks involved in such a mission is tremendous and we cannot allow our people to die,” John F. Kharshiing, chairman of the Federation of Khasi States, a powerful tribal group, told IANS.

Surveys conducted by the Atomic Energy Department show that there could be up to 10,000 tonnes of uranium in and around Domiasiat, about 150 km west of Shillong, the area considered to have the largest and richest sandstone-type deposits in the country.

The uranium ores are spread over a mountainous terrain in deposits varying from eight to 47 meters.

After initial operations, the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) was forced to wind up opencast mining in the mid-90s following a string of violent protests from local villagers.

The Hills State People’s Democratic Party and Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement, both partners of the ruling Congress-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance government, are opposing the Rs.8.14 billion mining project.

Rights groups like the Meghalaya People’s Human Rights Council and the Langrin Youth Welfare Association are also lobbying to stop the mining.

“I shall never allow my land to be used for uranium mining. I am prepared to die but never give up my fight,” said Spillity Langrin Lyngdoh, an 80-year-old woman from Domisiat area.

A small group of locals led by tribal elder Heas Dienglan are, however, supporting the mining.

“We think the area surrounding Domisiat would benefit a lot once uranium mining begins. We were told the UCIL would set up schools and colleges, hospitals and provide employment to the locals,” said Dienglan.

Uranium is an important mineral ore for making nuclear weapons and experts said the untapped reserve at Domiasiat could be a potential resource for India’s nuclear research programme.

For detailed information regarding Uranium mining in India and protests of indigenous people, please go to wise-uranium.org.

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Jalpaiguri’s death harvest – Siliguri, June 5:

At least one person dies every day in Jalpaiguri’s closed tea gardens where workers have been battling poverty and hopelessness for the past five years.

The state government has for the first time admitted the humanitarian crisis, overshadowed by the Singur-Nandigram land wars and West Midnapore starvation scandals.

But the government refuses to admit either starvation or “malnutrition” — the euphemism it uses in West Midnapore — in the gardens where, unofficial reports say, at least 3,000 have died since the 2002 closure spree.

A survey in April across the 14 closed gardens (Surendranagar has reopened since then) found that 571 people had died in the 15 months ending March 31 this year. Of them, 409 were below 60, the national average life span.

But the chief medical officer of health (Jalpaiguri), Bhusan Chakraborty, steered clear of the word “malnutrition”. He cited a host of reasons for the deaths: over 250 had died of heart diseases and stroke, and scores of others from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cirrhosis of liver, hepatitis, TB, high fever, meningitis, malaria, cancer and septicaemia.

But doctors said many of these can be brought on by starvation or aggravated to the point where they can lead to death.

“Malnutrition lowers immunity; the body loses its efficiency in fighting infections. Studies have revealed that malnutrition is a big factor in TB,” said Dr Milan Chhetri of Apollo Gleneagles Hospital, Calcutta.

Some of the findings left Sharmishtha Biswas, coordinator of Uttaron, a workers’ facilitation centre at Birpara that analysed the figures, “astounded”.

The dead include 46 under-10 children — three every month. “Some 465 people — 80 per cent of the total — died at home and only 106 in hospitals and health centres or on the way to hospitals,” one of the analysts said.

Workers said they couldn’t afford the long journey to hospitals and the ambulance service was non-functional. Only three of Kanthalguri’s 53 went to hospitals. At Bhornabari, all 79 died in their homes.

Anuradha Talwar, adviser to the food commissioner of the Supreme Court, has received a copy of the survey results. She said from Calcutta she would take it up with the Centre and the state.

During a visit to one of the closed gardens, Ramjhora, in March this year, governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi was appalled at the poverty and squalor he saw. Gandhi had told junior PWD minister Manohar Tirkey he just had to look at the sick children to find proof of malnutrition.

Some 17,000 labourers are jobless in the 13 gardens. The closures began in 1998 with a slump in tea prices. Some gardens reopened but in 2002, about 30 shut down again. In 2003, reports of starvation deaths started coming in.