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India's unyielding quest for uranium on a dangerous upswing

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Author: Sonali Huria ‒ PhD research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia Central University, New Delhi

The Indian Prime Minister is no stranger to the art of doublespeak. Launching the 'Status of Tigers in India Report, 2018' in July, Mr Modi lauded conservation efforts in India1, terming the country among the 'biggest and safest habitats for tigers in the world'. More recently, in an alternately loved2 and lampooned3 reality show aired on Discovery Channel4, the Prime Minister spoke eloquently of his love for nature and his government's commitment to environmental and particularly, tiger conservation efforts.

That in May this year, a Forest Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, had granted in-principle approval 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 Telangana5, did not appear to weigh down Mr Modi. Neither has the multiplicity of dissenting voices from civil society organizations, tiger conservationists, and environmentalists against the proposed uranium exploration and mining, deterred the Government from staying the course.

If anything, the government is making steady efforts to clamp down on dissenters and activists such as, Prof Kodandram, who was detained by the State Police6 while on his way to meet and express solidarity with the protesting communities. That however, has not deterred protestors who have come together to vehemently oppose the government's plans. An online people's petition7 to 'Save Nallamala and Stop Uranium Mining' has garnered close to 10,000 signatures over the past month.

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 Government8; the 2011 population census pegs their number at 47,315.9 The Amrabad Tiger Reserve, spread over 2,800 sq kms across the districts of Mahabubnagar and Nalgonda of Telangana, had earlier been part10 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 reported11 to have "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 a little over 18 tigers12 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 area13 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 remnants14 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.

For the Government however, the proposal for uranium exploration and mining in the area is not new; it has been toying with the idea for several years now. In a written response15 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 2016, the Field Director of the Amrabad Tiger Reserve Circle conducted a field inspection to assess the potential impact of the proposed uranium exploration on the forest. In his report16, 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", and 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 200617, 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 recognizes 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 clearance18 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 be required to be drilled19 which conservationists argue will not only annihilate already endangered species of plants and animals, but also contaminate the surface and groundwater.

A key apprehension voiced by several environmentalists is 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, and that the exploration will contaminate the river with radioactive pollutants, on which the Nagarjunasagar and Srisailam reservoirs are built.20

No strangers to the devastation caused by uranium

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, informs this researcher 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 those documented around the Jadugoda uranium mines21 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, informs this researcher22 that after a sample of the water was tested by the local centre of the State Agriculture Department, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, 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 metres yielded no water. Moreover, some water samples collected from the bore wells had revealed an increase in the percentage of uranium and other minerals.

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, argues Dr Rao, 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 bursts23 and leakages, dumping24 of radioactive waste in unmanned, unlined and uncovered ponds, from where it leaks into local water bodies used by communities25 for fishing, drinking and bathing, and enters the ground water and the food chain.

The UCIL and larger nuclear establishment 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 formed following the directions of the Jharkhand High Court in 2016 to examine 'the effects of uranium radiation in Jadugoda' – the former director of the Radiological Safety Division of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), is reported to have said that the diseases afflicting the communities of Jadugoda were on account of "economic backwardness, smoking habits and malnutrition" and not radiation.26

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.27 The committee, comprised28 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, 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.


1. Tiger count in India at 2,967; PM Narendra Modi lauds conservation efforts. (2019, July 29). Times of India.

2. Twitterati goes gaga over PM Narendra Modi in 'Man vs Wild'. (2019, August 13). The Free Press Journal. Available at

3. Chitra Ramaswamy. (2019, August 16). Man vs Wild with Bear Grylls and PM Modi review – the most tasteless TV ever. The Guardian.

4. Narendra Modi walks in wild with Bear Grylls, talks about conserving nature. (2019, August 12). LiveMint.

5. Environmental Clearance Application Form seeking prior approval under section 2 of the proposals by the state Governments and other authorities for ‘Uranium Mining in Amrabad Reserve'. Part-I, Appendix, Form-A. Submitted by Regional Director, AMD-DAE, Hyderabad. Available at

6. Venkata Kondubhatla. (2019, August 03). Cops detain prof Kodandram over backing protesters of Uranium mining. The Hans India.

7. Raj Mahakala. (2019, August). "Save Nallamala Forest and Stop Uranium Mining". Petition, Available at

8. State-wise list of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India. Available at

9. Tribe-wise and Sex-wise population and their Percentages to Total Population in Andhra Pradesh – 2011 Census. Tribal Welfare Department, Government of Andhra Pradesh. Available at

10. About Amrabad Tiger Reserve. Tiger Available at

11. Imran Siddiqui. (2019, July 10). "Amrabad Tiger Reserve: An Eden under threat". Down to Earth Magazine, Centre for Science and Environment.

12. Rashme Sehgal. (2019, July 12). "Uranium Mining Set to Destroy India's 2nd Largest Tiger Reserve". Available at

13. Imran Siddiqui. (2019). Op.Cit.

14. Ibid.

15. Unstarred Question No.2409. Rajya Sabha. (2015, March 19). "Uranium found in Telangana". Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India. Available at

16. Field Inspection Report dated 24 July 2018, submitted by Field Director, Amrabad Tiger Reserve Circle, in context of according permission for survey and exploration of Uranium in Block-1 (38 and Block-2 (38 of Amrabad R.F. (around Amrabad and Udimilla village, Mahaboob Nagar District) of Achampet Division and Block-3 ( and Block-4 (04 of Nidugal R.F. (Near Narayanapur village, Nalgonda District) of N.Sagar WLM Division of Amrabad Tiger Reserve circle. Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India. Available at

17. Section 38 O (1)(b) of the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2006 (Act No. 39 of 2006). Available at

18. Environmental Clearance Application Form for ‘Uranium Mining in Amrabad Reserve'. Op.cit.

19. Rashme Sehgal. (2019, July 12). Op.cit.

20. Bobins Abraham. (2019, July 22). "Despite Fears Of Threat To Krishna River & Tiger Reserve, Uranium Mining In Nallamala Okayed". India Times. Available at

21. Amlan Home Chowdhury. (2019, January 06). "Cancers, Abortions, Deformed Children are the High Cost of ‘Clean' Nuclear Energy in Jharkhand". The Citizen. Available at

22. Interview with Dr K Babu Rao, a retired senior scientist from the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) on 27 August 2019.

23. Arnab Pratim Dutta. (2015, July 04). "Uranium Spill". Down to Earth Magazine. Centre for Science and Environment. Available at

24. Chinky Shukla. (2013). "Jadugoda: The Nuclear Graveyard". Hindustan Times. Available at

25. Amita Bhaduri. (2016, August 04). "Mines Radiate Disaster". India Water Portal. Available at

26. Sagar. (2018, January 03). "Endorsed by Courts and the Government, Uranium Mining Continues to Create Health Hazards in Jadugoda as the UCIL Expands Its Operations". The Caravan. Available at

27. "Panel to study uranium contamination in A.P.'s Kadapa district". (2019, August 31). The Hindu.

28. Sandeep Raghavan. (2019, September 10). "Uranium Mining: Expert Team Inspects Kadapa Project Site". The Times of India.