Tribals oppose uranium mining

RESIDENTS of Domiasiat and Wahkaliar villages near Cherrapunji in Meghalaya have formed village action committees to resist a proposed uranium mine in the region. Students, welfare organisations and opposition parties in the state have joined hands to form the Khasi Jaintia Environment Protection Council (KJEPC) to support them.

KJEPC convener P B M Basaiawmoit complains the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is going ahead with exploration and mining of uranium in Meghalaya despite strong opposition from the local people. However, in a July statement to the press in Shillong, Margaret Alva, Union minister of state for personnel, claimed that the government of India had not yet taken a decision on the commercial exploitation of uranium deposits in Domiasiat.

Basaiawmoit is sceptical of the Centre's claim. He says, "DAE, in a letter dated February 8, 1992, had informed the state government that it would be mining and processing uranium at Domiasiat on a commercial scale." Reportedly, in a letter issued last month, the Central government had asked the state government to acquire land for a semi-processing uranium unit at Domiasiat.

But the tribals are determined to stop further exploration and mining by the DAE. The protest is fast turning into a mammoth people's movement. Claims KJEPC's Hamlet Baren, "Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, during his tour of the Northeast in June, cancelled his visit to Meghalaya because he anticipated strong opposition from Khasi and Jaintia tribals, who had planned a black flag salute for him." Even if Baren's theory is wrong, her statement reflects the local mood.

"The frightful consequences of uranium mining have already manifested themselves in Domiasiat. About 21 families near the Domiasiat mining site are showing symptoms of radiation exposure," claims Basaiawmoit. He admits though that medical investigations have not yet been conducted.

At the state level, some opposition parties have come forward to support the movement. However, the attitude of the ruling Congress is not yet clear. "The state government hasn't stopped DAE or objected to the demands made by the Central government," says Baren. But, according to speculations, since state assembly elections are scheduled for February 1993, both state and Central governments are buying time.

"Nevertheless, DAE is acquiring land for its project," says Basaiawmoit. "Even though land that belongs to scheduled tribes cannot be transferred without permission from the village darbar and the autonomous district council, land at Domiasiat is being acquired without permission," he complains. One land-holder in Domiasiat has already moved the courts for a stay order.

It is alleged that DAE is tempting land-holders with attractive prices for their land. "As a result," says Baren, "the local community has got divided." "But," adds Basaiawmoit, "we do not want to antagonise the landlords."

Though environmental movements against mining tend to fail once the local people become dependent on mining for their livelihood, uranium mining in Meghalaya has not yet reached that stage. "Therefore, it is important that we act as soon as possible," concludes Basaiawmoit.

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