Sonaram Kisku, a 24-year-old Adivasi worker, was following his daily schedule on May 28 when he entered the deepest level of the 260 meters deep Turamdih Uranium Mine, six kms from Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, at 7 am.

By 11 am, he was buried with 10 other co-workers under the wet radioactive slurry that they were clearing. He died with two other mine workers, SK Singh and Milan Karmakar.

But Kisku was not supposed to be there.

First, because the slurry that he was removing with his co-workers is not supposed to be removed manually. This slurry of stones and waste, left after the uranium ore is extracted, contains radioactive material. It is supposed to be removed by automated machines and flushed to the tailing dam outside the mines through huge pipes, with water flowing at high speed. The Uranium Corporation of India Limited might have resorted to manual clearing of slurry due to shortage of water, explained nuclear physicist Surendra Gadekar.

Second, Kisku was a contractual worker and not a permanent employee of the Uranium Corporation. Contractual and unskilled labour is generally kept away from the high sensitive zones of the inherently dangerous uranium mining. But the corporation has resorted to the practice of employing contractors, who in turn employ subcontractors to get cheap labour on temporary basis.

Xavier Dias, a veteran activist working on Adivasi rights in Jharkhand for more than two decades, said it was particularly noteworthy that of the other two who lost their lives, “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 Uranium Corporation in shifting the responsibility to the contractor. Apart from the wages, even the protective uniform given to the contractual workers by the contractors is qualitatively worse than the one given to the Uranium Corporation employees.

The exposure to radioactivity makes the whole mining process, maintenance and emergency response much more challenging and the workers therefore need to be equipped with high-quality safety gears.

Cost cutting

What is even more shocking is the findings of a Right to Information report, which show that these contractors do not even have a licence.

The name of the worker who filed the RTI is hidden on his request.
The name of the worker who filed the RTI is hidden on his request.

The daily wage workers are employed by a contractor, Triveni Singh, and not the corporation, said CS Sharma, the Human Resource head of the Uranium Corporation.

“Which government department doesn’t employ contract workers these days?” Singh said, when asked if it is normal for the corporation to send contractual workers inside the mine.

The Occupational Safety and Health Association of Jharkhand in Jamshedupur has demanded a thorough-probe, questioning the malpractices by labour contractors and the corporation management. The obsessive focus on cost-cutting led to a criminal neglect of basic safety practices by the Uranium Corporation, said Samit Kar of the association.

However, the Adivasis of Jadugoda have no resort but to work in these dangerous mines. Kisku belonged to the second generation of Turamdih Adivasi community who were promised permanent jobs in the Uranium Corporation when they were displaced from their homes. However, like Kisku, many remain on temporary or no jobs.

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 in the mine when they demanded permanent jobs, access to health facilities and other amenities like school for their children.

Photo by Ashish Biruli
Photo by Ashish Biruli

Radiation exposure

Perpetual job insecurity and poverty after losing their land and livelihood are, however, not the only threat to the local community. Had Kisku not died in this accident, he would have most likely died a slow and painful death due to radiation exposure. The link between radiation exposure and cancer has been established indisputably in various studies based on experiences from Hiroshima to Chernobyl and uranium mining sites across the world.

A health survey conducted by 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 impact of radiation from uranium mines in Jadugoda on the surrounding population and the environment, including one by the Indian Doctors for Peace and Democracy.

A recent study by Adrian Levy of the Centre for Public Integrity in the US revealed that dangerous levels of radiation were found in West Bengal, nearly 400 km downstream of the Subarnarekha river in which the Uranium Corporation routinely dumps its waste. But the nuclear establishment remains in denial, terming the study a work of foreign hands. However, as recently as last week, the Ministry of Environment and Forests instructed the Uranium Corporation to look into the violations of the Forest Conservation Act and the mining lease at India’s oldest uranium mine, in Jadugoda. In 2014, the Ranchi High Court had taken note of media reports about deformities around Jadugoda and instructed the Uranium Corporation to initiate an enquiry.

Ghanshyam Biruli, local activist and founder of Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation, 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. “The company employs all methods to keep us away from any public hearing,” he said. In January, his son Ashish Biruli tried entering a public hearing, but the local Uranium Corporation employees deployed at the gate begged him to return for the sake of their jobs.

The dismissal of employees is not an empty threat, confirmed Sagar Besra, who 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 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 are often levelled 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. Samad has only recently been acquitted and said that he has also been offered bribes and jobs, been labelled anti-national and even been threatened to stop voicing his opinion. Dumka Murmu of Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation said that those opposing uranium mining are often called traitors, anti-nationals and even Pakistani agents.

Prerna Gupta is a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Kumar Sundaram is a researcher associated with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.