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Uranium mining: Andhra activists denied permission, detained for protesting against rising pollution levels

By Our Representative
In what is being described as violation of their democratic rights, activists of two well-known advocacy groups, the Human Rights Forum and the National Alliance of People’s Movements (HRF-NAPM), were denied access to the venue of a public meet in Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh and detained when they tried to protest against pollution caused by "excessive mining" of uranium from the Tummalapalle mine.
Estimated to hold one of the largest reserves of uranium in the world, and catering to fuel requirements of nuclear power plants, according to HRF-NAPM, the mining has adversely affected the villagers of Mabbuchintilapalli, KK Kotala, Bhumayagaripalli and Kanumalavaripalem, residing barely 6 kms away from the mine and processing plant at Tummalapalle.
The protest was organized against the backdrop of local people of the area pleading about high pollution levels to the Government of India-owned Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), which operates under the Department of Atomic Energy, headed by the Prime Minister, complaining of plummeting underground water levels due to relentless pumping and drastic increase in sodium and uranium, leading to air, soil, ground and surface water contamination.
Reportedly, this pollution has been happening due to poor lining for the tailing pond, causing seepage. The cumulative impacts of the plant operations in the form of damage to agriculture and standing crop, water, health of local population (skin allergies, ulcers and kidney problems) and livestock (illnesses ad pre-mature deaths).
Quite a few villagers have had to ‘vacate’ their houses, due to these impacts. There is also the widespread fear in the region of the long-terms implications of radiation.
In an email alert, HRF-NAPM says, it has "learnt that water samples collected by local farmers from their tube wells and tested at the labs of Centre for Materials for Electronics Technology (C-MET), an autonomous scientific body under the Government of India, produced results indicating significant increase in uranium and sodium levels, much higher than the permissible and standard level."
"Besides", says the top advocacy groups, "In December 2016, researchers from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University (JNTU), Anantapur, analysed samples of water and soil and noted increased levels of barium, arsenic, cobalt, chromium, copper, molybdenum, lead, vanadium and yttrium, which could impact crop productivity and local environment."
Pointing out that this study has been published in the "International Journal of Advanced Research", HRF-NAPM says, "It is now well-established that heavy metals, if consumed in large quantities, may lead to severe health issues, including cancers, respiratory and kidney complications."
HRF-NAPM says, "Instead of addressing all these concerns, the UCIL recently issued an advertisement in newspapers claiming that a 'few individuals and NGOs are spreading wrong information against the organization', in a way indicating that all is not well with its operations."
Pointing out that despite all this the activists were denied permission and detained for hours when they tried to protest, HRF-NAPM underlines, "Clearly, such a public announcement, detention and denial of access to civil society activists, is more a measure to discredit and muzzle voices that are raising uncomfortable and important questions, in public interest."
The team that was detained on their way to the UCIL (where the meeting was called) was taken to Vemula police station included septuagenarian Dr Babu Rao, eminent scientist and environmentalist (HRF-NAPM), Adv Jayasree Kakumani of Human Rights Forum and Rajesh Serupally, NAPM.
Following intense protest by the activists and villagers and an immediate letter by EAS Sarma, former secretary, Government of India to the district collector, Kadapa, and Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, that Dr Babu Rao was allowed to participate in meeting with nuclear scientists and officials from UCIL and BARC.
However, other activists were kept in detention and released only late into the night at around 9 pm. All of them were made to sign papers stating that they would not indulge in such 'anti-social activities that disturb peace', which they did, under protest signatures. Media entry to the meeting site was also restricted.
While UCIL obtained clearance from the Centre for uranium mining in 2006, mine operations began around 2012. Locals allege, land acquisition for the plant was done in a coercive manner and public hearings before the environmental clearance witnessed protests and police action against villagers.
HRF-NAPM says, UCIL’s operations in Kadapa, is yet another classic case of weak post-clearance monitoring by the authorities, especially the Pollution Control Board (PCB) and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).
The advocacy groups have demanded that UCIL must ensure full disclosure of all necessary information in the public domain and in a manner discernable to the local population. It must immediately comply with all conditions stipulated at the time of project clearance including payment of full and fair compensation for all forms of losses and impacts incurred by the local population due to UCIL operations.
It adds, PCB and MoEF must undertake an immediate visit, comprehensive assessment and rigorous monitoring of the present status of environmental compliance (or lack of it) and conduct a post-clearance public audit and hearing. These monitoring authorities should also be ready to issue and impose orders of cessation of operations, if violations are found.

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