Uranium Exploration in Meghalaya’s Villages Continues Unabated Without Local Sanction and Despite Troubling Health and Environmental Concerns

Spility Lyngdoh, an 85-year-old woman, was in her twenties when she moved to Domiasiat, in the South West Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. Since uranium exploration began in the village, five members of the clan have died to mysterious illnesses and a few suffer from debilitating medical abnormalities, such as ulcers, skin diseases, epilepsy and malformed limbs, to this day. Dilnaz Boga
08 May, 2017

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.”

Norman said that several adults in the village who went to Shillong for treatment found that they suffered from “muscular diseases, seizures, epilepsy and cancer.” “Many died without diagnosis,” he added softly. I asked him for the medical records of the deceased, but he told me that that as per their customary funeral ritual, the belongings of the deceased were cremated with them. I heard similar accounts of illnesses from Nongjri and Nongtynniaw. The uranium exploration, the residents claimed, had adversely affected not only their health but also the flora and fauna around exploration sites. Despite local opposition to the exploration because of its effects on individual health and the environment, the government shows no signs of stopping its uranium-exploration efforts in the state.

The exploration sites are tucked away in the remote hills of Meghalaya. The locations of these villages and exploration sites mean that none of them have easy access to medical care. It also seems to have prevented any independent organisation from conducting studies to ascertain the link between the poor health of the residents and environmental damage to the uranium exploration in these hills.

The only way to access Domiasiat is by trekking to the village through dense jungles—themselves a two-day drive from Shillong—that have no roads. A primary health centre—a state-owned rural healthcare facility—located in Wahkaji, a village around 34 kilometres from Domiasiat, is its only access to medical care. The health centre is now abandoned, and according to the Domiasiat residents, has been lying vacant since 2006. There is no other government or private hospital or clinic in the vicinity. For the past decade, the village residents have been traveling to Shillong for treatment.

Nongjri is a similarly remote village in the West Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. It is around 150 kilometres from Shillong and only a few kilometres from the Bangladesh border. The village is not connected to its nearest town—Nongkulang—by road. The journey to the Nongjri hill entails a turbulent jeep ride over treacherous terrain and an uphill trek. Upon reaching the hill, I learnt that the locals of Nongjri and the adjoining villages were worried about the effects of uranium exploration. Despite local governing bodies having opposed the exploration in the past, the AMD had authorised exploratory drilling for uranium in the Nongjri’s hills.

The Khasi Tribes of Meghalaya are the residents of the state’s Khasi hills. The hills are one of the three regions in the state granted an autonomous district status, under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The schedule empowers an elected council, called the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), with independent administrative, legislative and judicial authority. In 2007, the AMD granted Maheshwari Mining Private Ltd, a private company based in Kolkata, permission to carry out exploratory drilling in the Nongjri region. According to a report published on the website of Down to Earth, a fortnightly magazine on environmental issues, in February 2007, when the KHADC issued a no-objection certificate and a trade license to the company, it was not aware that the drilling was for uranium exploration. The powers conferred upon the KHADC by the Sixth Schedule require that any company must obtain an NOC before conducting any mining or exploratory drilling activity. The report quotes Pynshngain N Syiem, the chief executive member of the KHADC, who stated that the council later “received several complaints from local organisations and communities living in the areas.” “In June 2011,” Pynshngain continued, “the company was asked to surrender the trade license.”

On 27 December 2016, despite this prevailing situation, the AMD floated an online tender, stating that “the work will relate to 1,500 metre core drilling in Nongjri with boreholes of depth varying from 450 to 550 metres.” Pynshngain was not aware of the AMD tender or any drilling in the area. He told me the KHADC had not issued an NOC for exploratory drilling in Nongjri, and that he would send an officer to find out about the tender. “Government cannot go against the people’s opinion,” he said. “People don’t want uranium mining here,” he continued, “We will have to convince them for permission.”

According to the attendance and payment logs of the Nongjri office of the Maheshwari Mining Private Ltd, which I accessed, the labourers began the exploratory drilling in 2015, before the tender was floated. I spoke to Shobhan Pujari, the supervisor of the company’s Nongjri exploration site, who was posted in the area in October 2016.  “We’ve been drilling one hole per month in the hill [since October 2016],” he told me. “Each hole bored costs us Rs 3 crore, and we’ve been sending soil samples from every three meters to the AMD for analysis regularly,” he added, pointing to tiny bags of soil lying next to the drilling machines.

Albert Marwein, a 31-year-old shop owner who lives in the adjoining village of Nonghyllam, expressed concern for his family and his village. We wore a mask to protect ourselves from the loose dust, which he removed while speaking to me. “Most people here know that we suffer from bad health because of uranium exploration,” he said. “Illnesses started soon after the exploration,” he continued. “It’s not a coincidence.” Marwein was surprised that the situation had not changed in the past 25 years despite the advancements in scientific knowledge. “It’s not safe to live here,” he said. “I have a shop so I have money to move to Shillong but what about the rest?”

Ioanis Hadshah, a teacher from Nongkulang, a village located six kilometres from Nongjri, described in detail the changes he had observed since 2015, when the drilling in Nongjri began. “Two decades ago, there was flora and fauna and aquatic life in Ranikor river [in Meghalaya],” Hadshah said. “The river was blue, now it has turned green due to uranium pollution,” he added. “This has happened before our eyes.”

In April 2012, thousands of dead fish were found floating in the Ranikor river. Though two geologists submitted a report at the time attributing the deaths to the uranium-ore exploration, Bindo Lanong, then the deputy chief minister, denied that the fish had died due to the exploratory drilling in the region. According to a story published in April 2017 in the Daily Star—a daily newspaper in Bangladesh—there are concerns “over India’s exposing open pits of uranium to a river system causing deaths of fish has made experts in Bangladesh concerned about a likely link.” The report proceeds to state that “there is no proof yet, but if uranium is linked to it, Bangladesh’s wetland and the river system connected to it will suffer a heavy blow.”

Reminiscing about the times before 2015 when he would fish in the Ranikor, Hadshah said, “In half an hour, I used to catch plenty of fish. Now there’s nothing.” He continued: “Clearly, no one cares about the land or the people who are getting diseases.” Hadshah told me that during the rains, the residents often spot dead fish in the river. Though it is possible that heavy rainfall in the Nongjri region carries the contaminated groundwater from the hill where the drilling is being carried out to the Ranikor river, such a hypothesis could only be confirmed by independent studies.

The village of Mawthabah is located 141 kilometres from Shillong. Its residents claimed that the mismanagement of the tailings storage in the village forests has caused deaths and diseases among the residents and the cattle of the village. Forwardman Nongrem, the president of the South West Khasi Hills chapter of the Khasi Students Union, a prominent students’ body in the state that has consistently opposed the exploratory drilling for uranium ore, spoke about the effects of heavy rainfall when I spoke to him at the tailings-storage site. “This is an earthquake-prone region with high rainfall,” he said. “There could have been leaks in the cement-storage structures underground,” he continued, referring to the structures that process the uranium ore and store the residue tailings. He showed me several cracks in the concrete storage containers. “Heavy rainfall could have further spread this leak to the water table with a likely impact on health and environment.”

In Nongtynniaw village, ten kilometres from Nongjri, I met eight-year-old Bluetiful Thongni. He was unable to hold his head up and a sore on his foot prevented him from being able to walk. He is speech-impaired, and a constant dribble ran down his chin. Borlin Marthang, Thongni’s father, told me that the UCIL dumped the waste from its uranium exploration in the village and by the Phud Sawphew river, which its residents used as a water source.

Thongni is among 15 children I met in Nongtynniaw village who appeared to be suffering from congenital medical conditions. Borlin Marthang, Thongni’s father, told me that most children were physically handicapped, stunted and presented symptoms of mental-health issues, but were never officially diagnosed. Nongtynniaw, too, has little access to healthcare. The nearest primary health centre is 60 kilometres from the village. Marthang told me that when he took Thongni to the centre, the government’s health officials told him that Thongni did not suffer from any disability and only suffered from rickets—a bone disorder among children in which bones become soft and weak—and refused to give Thongni a disability certificate. Marthang offered an explanation: if the government gave Thongni a certificate, he said, “then they will have to give the other children [disability certificates] too and everyone will know something bad is happening here.”

According to Nongrem, the immediate need in the region was for an independent scientific study to detail the effect of the uranium exploration. “Taking all this destruction into consideration, we will not allow uranium mining here,” he said. MV Ramana, the author of the 2012 book The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India, and a member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials—an independent group of arms-control and non-proliferation experts—also expressed the need for an independent study. “Nuclear establishments typically deny that any observed illness patterns are related to mining and related activities,” he said. “However, if there is clear evidence of an excess of ill health that could plausibly be related to uranium mining and its processing, the government should order an independent epidemiological study carried out by experts not associated with the nuclear establishment.” I contacted Sandeep Hamilton —the AMD’s regional director of the north-east region, who is in-charge of the exploration operations in Meghalaya—in March 2017. Hamilton told me he could only speak to me after his superiors give him their permission. At the time of publishing this story, he had not yet received a go-ahead.

India’s uranium exploration fuels its desire to grow as a nuclear power in South Asia and use the locally-sourced uranium for military purposes. India’s international agreements stipulate that the country’s uranium imports can only be used in the civil sector to generate energy. There are 22 operational nuclear-power reactors in India, which contribute to less than three percent of the country’s total energy generation. The central government is keen to increase this to 25 percent by 2050. Currently, several reactors work at half of their installed capacity because they are falling short of natural uranium, which is used as fuel. The success of the Indian nuclear program depends therefore on the availability of adequate supply of natural uranium resource and its exploitation.

It appears that India’s hunger for uranium, together with the stoic silence of its officials and the lack of adequate medical facilities in these remote villages have caused its residents to suffer life-threatening illnesses. Bitter lessons from other uranium-mining sites such as Jadugoda have been forgotten. Demands for medical studies on those suffering have fallen on deaf ears for decades as fathers such as Morthang hope for help from the government. Morthang was moved to tears when I asked him what message he would give to UCIL officials. Wiping his tears, he said, “I want to ask the government not to mine uranium in Meghalaya and save our kids.”