In early March this year, an environmental public hearing (EPH) was held on a proposed uranium milling and processing plant in an area inhabited by Lambada tribe, at Seripally village in Andhra's Nalgonda district. Uranium is a radioactive element used in missiles and nuclear weapons, and its dust is highly carcinogenic. The public hearing was required by law to obtain the clearances necessary for such projects. The inputs of interested groups were to be recorded at the meeting, and a decision made thereafter. But the very fact that this hearing was held showed how badly corrupted the whole process is.
To understand this, roll back the clock about 20 months. In August 2003, the Uranium Corporation of India Limited had held a similar meeting, to obtain clearances for uranium mines at Lambapur-Peddgattu, and a processing plant at Mallapuram. The status of this earlier public hearing and environmental clearances for uranium mining remains in limbo even after one and a half years. So what is different about the recent hearing? The Supreme Court has since ordered that no hazardous industry can be located within 10 kilometres of the drinking water sources for Hyderabad-Secunderabad, the water reservoirs at Gandhipet and Himayatsagar. Since the original site - Mallapuram - did not meet that standard, the UCIL is now proposing to establish the processing plant at Seripally, about 50 kilometers away.
But with clearances for the mining itself uncertain, what would be the point of obtaining clearances for a processing plant? It appears the Government has already taken a decision to go ahead with the uranium mining despite opposition by the local communities and various environmental and social groups.
The concerns raised about the uranium mining and the processing plant during the previous EPH in August 2003 were as follows
Nagarjuna Sagar water reservoir at risk of contamination: The proposed mines and processing plant are situated less than 2 kilometres from the Nagarjuna Sagar reservoir. The general drainage of the area from all sides is towards the reservoir. A study done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1982 on 22 uranium tailings piles near rivers or streams resulted in elevated levels of radium-226 and chemical contaminants . In November 1989, at Comeco's uranium mine (Canada), 2 million liters of radioactive liquid containing significant concentrations of arsenic and radium, spilled into a creek feeding Wollaston Lake . This massive spill went undetected for more than 16 hours, despite the fact that instrumentation and visits every two hours were in place to detect spills. These examples show that despite all the precautions claimed by the UCIL to contain the radioactive tailings, spills cannot be ruled out. The Nagarjuna Sagar reservoir provides drinking water for six districts of Andhra Pradesh, and any such spill will be catastrophic.
Project's proximity to the wildlife area: The proposed leasehold area also comprises of the Yellapura Reserve Forest and is also very close to the Rajiv Gandhi Tiger Sanctuary. This sanctuary is very rich in fauna comprising of many scheduled species of mammals and reptiles, and about 200 species of birds.
Only Rapid EIA (one season data) prepared for such a sensitive project: The EIA which was prepared for UCIL could not be called a full-fledged EIA report since only a single season's data was used in its preparation.
No people's consent for diversion of forest land: The Central Government issued a circular in 1999 prohibiting the diversion of forest land in Sanctuaries, National Parks and Biosphere Reserves. In this respect, whenever any proposal for diversion of forest land is submitted, it should be accompanied by a resolution of the Aam Sabha of the Gram Panchayat/Local Body endorsing the proposal that the project is in the interest of people living in and around the proposed forest land .No resolution from Aam Sabha was sought by the UCIL with their proposal to seek the diversion of the forest land for non forest purpose to the State government
Public hearing venue selected in a way to keep people away from EPH: UCIL chose a venue for the public hearing that is 14 kilometres from the villages that would be affected. This limited the local people's ability to be present and voice their opinions at the hearing.
The site chosen for the public hearing was highly inaccessible to the communities that would be affected by the project. (Picture: MAUP)
These concerns raised during the earlier public hearing are still lingering in the air, with no response either from the government or UCIL. Now, UCIL proposes to locate the processing plant farther from the reservoirs, but the mining itself would remain in the area near the water storage. The risk of contamination of the reservoirs, thus, is unchanged. Moreover, the radioactive material mined near the reservoir would have to be transported to the proposed processing plant, posing other risks of leakage along the way. Nor are the many other concerns addressed properly this time too.
The venue for the public hearing was once again far away from villages that would be affected. The site selected for the EPH was an open area in the midst of several small hillocks away from all villages and 'thandas' nearby, with inadequate and shabby arrangements, and it was inconvenient for many of the local people to reach the place. The Nallagonda APPCB regional office took great care to provide a heavily armed police force of about 200 at the EPH site, rather than providing basic amenities for the large number of men, women and their children attending the public hearing.
The Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by M/s B S Envi-Tech (P) Ltd, Hyderabad a little-known group, is even worse than the earlier two EIA reports submitted in 2003 for the proposed Lambapur-Peddagattu mining projects and Ore processing plant at Mallapuram. This report too is based on data from just one season, and even that one is winter, whereas it is in the summer that the water flow and runoff that might contaminate water reservoir can be properly calculated.
There is no information on rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) for the project-affected persons, whose lands will be acquired, except the claim that 'Rehabilitation and resettlement package involved at the plant site and tailing pond area has been estimated as per existing norms.' Lest we forget, these existing norms have come in for scathing criticism in the Supreme Court only recently.
An impacted assessment process
Killing them slowly
However, at same time a team consisting of Dr. Rajesh Gopal IGF & Director (Project Tiger) and Prof. Raman Sukumar (Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore) went for a site inspection on the 29th and 30th November, 2003, of Chitrial and Peddagattu areas of the Rajiv Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary (Nagarjunasagar-Srisailiam Tiger Reserve). And in their presentation to the National Board of Wildlife on 8th January 2004, they proposed diversion of 1000 ha area in Chitral and 1000 ha in Peddagattu for the UCIL project from the wildlife sanctuary area. Their observation was based on the importance they attached to India's nuclear power programme and also the opinion that the proposed exploratory drilling may not cause any significant harm to wildlife and its habitat. The only condition they imposed was that the user agency should deposit Rs. 5 crores for better conservation, even as forest-dependent communities were being forced out of the forest areas in the name of protection.
But this time for uranium project there is no opposition from either the AP Pollution Control Board or the state government. As of date there is no official communication from the government about their response to the public hearing. The Chief Minister, Y S Rajashekhar Reddy of the ruling Congress party, says the state government does not have any stake in the approval, and it is therefore for the Centre (also led by the Congress) to decide. Unofficial sources reveal that the Department of Atomic Energy putting pressure on officials who are speaking against the project. The powers of the government under the Atomic Energy Act of 1964 are enough to go ahead with this project with or without the consent of the local people.
Summary of March 2005 hearing
The question now is whether the Ministry of Environment and Forests, will give its clearance or reject the project on the grounds of environmental safety and stiff opposition from the people. This is an important test for not only the Government but also for the validity of whole EIA and public hearing process. The people of Nalgonda have made it very clear again and again to the government, the UCIL, and others that they will not let their land and forests be contaminated and destroyed by uranium mining. It's just not a question of their well-being, but the risks are also thrust upon future generations. Even if uranium mining is necessary, it has to be asked whether the nation's interest is served by putting approximately six million people in Hyderabad and Secundrabad at risk of a major drinking water contamination, in addition to putting local communities at constant risk of exposure to radiation.