For a woman her age, Spility Langrin Lyngdoh is remarkably active. You could perhaps attribute it to a potentially radioactive mineral she drinks, eats and sleeps on. Lyngdoh, 82, is one of the matriarchs of Domiasiat, a uranium rich region in West Khasi hills of Meghalaya, in Northeast India. And like others, she knows how difficult life can be if the ‘monster mineral’ is aroused from its subterranean bed. The diminutive grandma claims she has seen the devil in the yellow cake. She recounts how her fellow villagers suffered illnesses, while children lost their lives in Domiasiat and the adjoining villages such as Phlangdiloin, Langpa and Phudumiap. She blames it on the exploration work that the Atomic Mineral Division (AMD) had conducted from 1990 to 1995 after Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) labelled an area within the 10 kilometre radius of Domiasiat as commercially viable for mining.
This anti uranium activist is not alone. Her fellow matriarchs in the village are in arms including those who own a sizeable plot at Nongbah Jynrin Village – where the focus of uranium mining has now shifted. The activists have refused to sell land to the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) for construction of a road to Nongbah Jynrin to facilitate mining for UCIL’s uranium project, worth over Rs. 82 million. “Ten years ago, I saw labourers working in the Domiasiat mines being treated for illnesses at the Wakhaji primary health centre. I don’t want a project that spells disaster for us,” Langrin says. Nongbah Jynrin and the adjoining hamlets sit over an estimated 1,35,000 tons of uranium oxide, which is 16 percent of India’s uranium reserves. This cluster lies barely 15 kilometres from the Indo Bangladesh border.
Speaking on behalf of some 400 Khasi tribal people inhabiting the regions, the activists add, “We are told the project will ensure development, but will development hold any meaning if we aren’t healthy?” The KHADC, Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board, UCIL and AMD conducted a public hearing last year to gauge local opinion on the uranium project which has been hanging fire for nearly two decades. UCIL officials based in Shillong contest the claims of the ‘grandma brigade’ on health complications caused by such mining. “The area is high on shiver-fevers such as malaria and anti-uranium activists are attributing such deaths to radioactivity. Meghalaya’s health system is in a shambles and people in the uranium belt suffer because of its remoteness. The villagers have to walk nearly 20 kilometres to the nearest public health centre at Wakhaji that invariably has no doctors or medicines,” says a senior UCIL officer.
But the gritty grandma’s anti uranium activism has had an impact. They have made pressure groups like the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) go hammer and tongs against the government’s bid to extract uranium ‘at the cost of community and environment health’. Saying no to uranium mining thus acquired political colour in Langrin, one of the 60 Assembly constituencies of Meghalaya, for the recent elections.
It had a domino effect on other constituencies as well, with almost all political parties contesting the elections pledging to oppose uranium mining if voted to power. “We are clear that we want uranium mining operations to be suspended until the authorities concerned provide us with a white paper underlining all the pros and cons,” said Bindo Lanong, spokesperson of the regional United Democratic Party. Pan-India political groups such as the Nationalist Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party echoed the anti-uranium rhetoric. But the Congress, which has ruled Meghalaya since it attained statehood in 1972, is non-committal. The party is divided on the issue, with one camp favouring the mining project for an ‘economic turnaround’ and the other keen on going by the ‘people’s verdict’.
Whether or not these parties renege their promise after winning elections, one thing is sure that the matriarchal warriors will not readily give up the fight against mining in the Domiasiat belt, among India’s richest uranium reserves and key to a viable nuclear programme in the country.