Dying Kids, a Poor Indian Village, Uranium Mines and a Mystery
His grandfather, Debnandan Gope, watches glumly as the boy struggles, face streaked with sweat, one thin forearm, then another, digging into the dirt, his legs and feet carving a winding trail behind him.
About 10 years old -- ages in India’s villages are often estimates -- Sanjay could move normally as a toddler until seizures began to wring the life from his arms and legs. Now, when no family member can assist him, he’s left “to crawl around the ground like a snake,” his grandfather said.
That would be dispiriting enough save for the omen it conjures. An older sister, Sunita, experienced a similar collapse. Her limbs grew so deformed that she couldn’t feed or bathe herself before she died two years ago at 13.
Across the path that runs by Sanjay’s house, Rakesh Gope, a member of Sanjay’s tribe although no direct relation, sits on a dirt floor under the rusting corrugated roof of an open-air room where his grandfather is sleeping. A slight boy with light brown eyes, he attempts to wave but his hands only flap in a spastic flurry. He’s another 10-year-old unable to walk on his own.
No one knows exactly how many children like this live here and in nearby villages -- only that they are all too easy to find.
Sanjay and Rakesh live near Jadugora, a town of 19,500 people about 850 road miles (1,370 kilometers) from New Delhi in east India’s Jharkhand state. Once ringed by lush tribal forests, Jadugora is today a troubling portrait of modern India, its outskirts a postcard of pastel-painted mud houses scattered amid tidy rice fields, its center the hub of India’s uranium mining industry that is fueling an unprecedented nuclear power boom.
It’s here that state-run Uranium Corp. of India Ltd. is licensed by the Indian government to gouge hundreds of thousands of tons of uranium ore out of the ground each year, while just over a hill, an easy walk from the village, 193 acres of ponds holding mildly radioactive waste stand largely unguarded save for no-trespassing signs.
For years, these desperately poor people living in scattered villages in the shadow of these mines have been tormented by a mystery: What’s causing the wasting diseases that are deforming and killing so many of their children?
Sanjay’s 70-year-old grandfather, a bare-chested, barefoot man rendered lean by hard work and a sparse diet, offers an observation shared by many here -- that before the mines came, children did not crawl around in the dirt and die. He might be dismissed as an illiterate, grieving relative of a crippled boy and a dead girl except that outsiders, including the Jharkhand High Court and environmental activist groups, suggest he may be right.
In February, the High Court in the state capital of Ranchi filed a petition that pointed to the mines operated by Uranium Corp. since 1967. Shocked by photographs of the area’s sick and deformed children in the Indian press, the court ordered the company and relevant government agencies to explain what measures they were taking to protect the health of those living in villages around the mines.
“The health problems related to uranium mining are affecting the indigenous people disproportionately in and around the uranium mining operational area,” with as many as 50,000 people “at risk,” the court wrote.
Children living near the mines, the court added, “are born with swollen heads, blood disorders and skeletal distortions. Cancer as a cause of death is more common in villages surrounding uranium operations.”
The High Court isn’t alone in its concerns. In 2007, an Indian physicians group published survey results showing villagers near the mines reported levels of congenital deformities and deaths from such deformities far higher than those 20 miles away.
In 2008, the Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation, a local activist group, collected water samples from 10 Jadugora- area locations, including wells and streams. Seven were shown to have unsafe levels of heavy metals -- including lead, a byproduct of uranium mining, and mercury.
Jharkhand is a poor place, even by India’s standards. Average annual per capita income is equivalent to about $720 despite the existence of substantial coal and uranium reserves. Debnandan Gope, for example, makes 83 cents a day as a field hand -- when he can get work. Illiteracy is common.
People cook on fires fueled by dried cow dung. Women walk the roadsides balancing gleaming metal water jugs on their heads as they go to and from public wells. Village men still plow the land with cattle. Some gather in houses on legs not much more substantial than baseball bats, a result of the meager rice- paste diets common here. Life expectancy is among the lowest in all of India -- 58 years compared with 63.5 for the nation as a whole, according to a 2011 United Nations report.
Many scrounge and scavenge to get by -- even around uranium dumps. Trespassing signs, assuming they can even be read, don’t mean much.
9 Jul 2014