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Accident kills three workers in uranium mine: India's nuclear dream, adivasis' nightmare

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Prerna Gupta and Kumar Sundaram

On May 28, Sonaram Kisku, a young Adivasi worker aged 24 died unceremoniously in Turamdih Uranium Mine, 6 kms from Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. Sonaram, following his daily schedule entered the deepest level of the 260 meters deep mine at 7 am in the morning. At 11am he got buried with 10 other co-workers under the wet radioactive slurry that they were clearing manually. He died with two other mine workers, S K Singh and Milan Karmakar.

But Sonaram was not supposed to be there. Firstly, because the slurry that he was removing with his co-workers is not supposed to be removed manually. The slurry inside the mine – the stones and waste left after the uranium ore is extracted– still contains radioactive material and is supposed to be removed by automated machines and flushed to the tailing dam outside the mines through huge pipes with the water flowing at high speed. Dr. Surendra Gadekar, a renowned nuclear physicist, explained the process while adding that the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) might have resorted to manual clearing of slurry due to shortage of water.

Secondly, because he was a contractual worker and not a permanent employee of the UCIL. Contractual and unskilled labour is generally kept away from the high sensitive zones of the inherently dangerous uranium mining. But UCIL has resorted to the practice of employing contractors which further have subcontractors to get cheap labour on temporary basis.

Xavier Dias, a veteran activist working on adivasi rights in Jharkhand for more than two decades, finds it particularly noteworthy that "one of the employees was the 'Safety Inspector' and the other was a foreman which means that there was some kind of crisis management going on before the accident took place."

Employing contractual workers also helps the UCIL in shifting the responsibility to the contractor. Let alone the wages, even the protective uniform given to the contractual workers by the contractors is qualitatively worse than the one given to the UCIL employees. What is even more shocking are the findings of an RTI report which shows that these contractors do not even have a license.

When asked about employing daily wage workers, Mr. C.S. Sharma, the HR head of the UCIL, said they are employed by a contractor, Mr. Triveni Singh, and not by the UCIL. When asked if it is normal for the UCIL to send contractual workers inside the mine, Mr. Singh retorted – "which goverment department doesn't employ contract workers these days."

After the accident, Jamshedpur-based Occupational Safety and Health Association of Jharkhand (OSHAJ) has demanded a thorough probe, questioning the malpractices by labour contractors and the UCIL management. Mr. Samit Kar of OSHAJ said the UCIL's obsessive focus on cost-cutting has led to a criminal neglect of basic safety practices.

However, the adivasis of Jadugoda have no resort but to work in these dangerous mines. Sonaram belonged to the second generation of Turamdih adivasi community who were promised permanent jobs in UCIL on displacement. However, like Sonaram, many remain in temporary jobs or have no job at all.

The Turamdih mine has witnessed a series of workers' disputes since it came into operation. As recently as 2013, there was a police crackdown on adivasis working inside the mine when they demanded permanent jobs, access to health facilities and other amenities like school for their children.

Perpetual job insecurity and poverty after losing their land and livelihood are, however, not the only threat to the local community here. The link between radiation exposure and cancer has been established indisputably by the vast experiences from Hiroshima to Chernobyl and uranium mining sites across the world.1 A health survey conducted by Dr. Surendra Gadekar's team around the area of Jadugoda mines shows the harmful consequences of radiation ranging from skin diseases to infertility and cancer. There have been a number of studies establishing the radiation impact of uranium mines Jadugoda on the surrounding population and the environment, including one by the Indian Doctors for Peace and Democracy (IDPD).2

A recent study by Adriane Levy of US-based Centre for Public Integrity revealed that dangerous levels of radiation were found in West Bengal, 245 miles downstream of the Subarnarekha river in which the UCIL routinely dumps its waste.3 But the nuclear establishment remains in denial, terming it a work of foreign hands. However, as recently as last week, the Ministry of Environment & Forests instructed the UCIL to look into the violations of the Forest Conservation Act and the Mining Lease in the uranium extraction in Jharkhand. In 2014, the Ranchi High Court responded to media reports about deformities around Jadugoda by instructing the UCIL to initiate an enquiry.

Ghanshyam Biruli, local activist and founder of Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR), believes that the newly opened mines of Turamdih, Bandhohurang and Mohuldih are even more dangerous than Jadugoda. Ghanshyam, a native of Jadugoda, has been raising the issue of radiation for more than a decade. He told us "the company employs all methods to keep us away from any public hearing". When in January his son Ashish Biruli tried entering a public hearing, the local UCIL employees deployed at the gate begged him to return for the sake of their jobs.

Sagar Besra confirms the firing of employees from jobs is not an empty threat. He himself was fired from Turamdih mines for raising concerns over negligence of safety norms. He is still fighting in the High Court what he claims to be a fabricated case put against him by the company. Besra is not alone, there are many permanent and temporary workers dismissed by the company using various pretexts and fictitious police charges often leveled by using other hapless adivasis.

Arjun Samad, a fiery young activist respected by the whole community, has been fighting an unequal battle against the company since he was 14 and put in jail on the charge of murder in 2005. Arjun has only recently been acquitted and told us that he has also been offered a bribe and a job to stop voicing his opinion, and called anti-national and even threatened. Dumka Murmu of JOAR says that they are often called traitors, anti-nationals and even Pakistani agents for opposing uranium mining.

In its desperation to obtain uranium for weapons, the government actually reopened the mines in Turamdih, Badhuhurang and Mohuldih, which were dismissed initially for having low-quality ore in early 1980s. The ruling BJP seeks to expand India's nuclear arsenal which would only mean more death and destruction in Jadugoda. Caught in a meaningless choice of joblessness and working in hazardous uranium mines, the adivasis of Jadugoda have to bear the burden of martyrdom in a nation which has consistently undermined their voices. The accident that we saw in Jadugoda was not an aberration. Soon after we came back to Delhi, while PM Narendra Modi was in the U.S. signing the nuclear deal, there was another accident.4 The four pipes carrying radioactive waste from the Jadugoda mill to the tailing pond leaked and reached a nearby pond where two kids were bathing.