Spility Lyngdoh, an 85-year-old woman, was in her twenties when she moved from Wahkaji to Domiasiat—both villages in the South West Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. Domiasiat is 135 kilometers from Shillong, the state’s capital. In the 1960s, Lyngdoh got married and moved to Domiasiat with her husband, where she cultivated the land and reared cattle. In 1984, the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD)—a unit under the department of atomic energy that is responsible for locating minerals necessary to implement the nation’s atomic-energy plan—discovered high-quality uranium on the Domiasiat hill. On 6 March 2017, I met Lyngdoh at her house in Domiasiat. Lyngdoh recalled that in 1991, labourers employed by the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL), a central-government enterprise under the department of atomic energy, who were exploring for uranium in the area, warned her about the ill-effects it had on their health. “That’s when I decided not to sell my land,” she told me. “No matter how much money UCIL offered me years later, I never wanted to sell.”
Lyngdoh is the matriarch of her clan—the families of her three sons and six daughters. The clan comprises seven households and its members are the only residents of the village. We met on the day of her husband’s funeral. In 2014, she lost Pon, her 54-year-old son, to throat cancer. Norman Donald Syiem, Domiasiat’s village chief and Lyngdoh’s son-in-law, told me that since the exploration began, five members of the clan have died to mysterious illnesses and a few continue to suffer from debilitating medical abnormalities, such as ulcers, skin diseases, epilepsy and malformed limbs.
In 1976, the AMD set up its northeastern-circle office in Shillong. Since then, Meghalaya has been at the centre of India’s quest for uranium, and exploration via drilling—a pre-mining activity—has been conducted in various villages in the state. According to the AMD’s website, by 1992, it had completed exploration drilling and geological studies of the Domiasiat uranium deposit, also known as the Kyelleng-Pyndengsohiong-Mawtahbah deposit, or KPM. The website records that 9,500 tonnes of uranium ore is estimated to exist at the Domiasiat site.
In areas where uranium-ore mining is conducted, uranium tailings, the by-products that remain after the uranium ore is processed, seep into groundwater and water sources in the vicinity, posing significant health and environmental concerns. Uranium-ore exploration through the pre-mining process of drilling also results in the release of tiny uranium particles, which are highly toxic, and can be carried by the wind for several kilometres. Globally, clinical metal toxicologists have verified the link between ingestion of uranium residue and the inhalation of uranium particles to over 90 debilitating diseases, including cancers, various deformities, stillbirths, abortions, decline in sperm count and muscular defects. In Jadugoda in Jharkhand, one of India’s first uranium-mining sites, tribal communities residing in the region were afflicted with congenital deformities, sterility and cancer.
In March 2017, I travelled to four villages in Meghalaya to speak to their residents about the effects of uranium-ore exploration. While Domiasiat village was an exploration site in the 1990s, I also visited Nongjri village, which had an active exploration site at that time. The two other villages, Nongtynniaw and Mawthabah, contained waste materials from exploration and residue tailings. Norman, the Domiasiat village chief, said that, between 1990 and 1992, the river’s fish had become “diseased.” The “fish were alive but their flesh was spoilt,” he told me. “In our small village,” he continued, “we witnessed deaths of mothers due to excessive bleeding during pregnancy, stillbirths and deformed babies.”