Three decades after the discovery of high-grade uranium ore deposits in Meghalaya, the state government has paved the way for India's quest to be an atomic energy powerhouse.
But radiation-scared locals and civil rights groups are in no mood to allow the "agents of death" - Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) to be precise - to carry out their pre-development activities.
The proposed Kylleng-Pyndengsohiong Uranium Project at Mawthabah in Meghalaya's West Khasi Hills district has been hanging fire ever since the Atomic Minerals Divison found 9,500 tons of uranium oxide deposits in 9.22 million tons of ore in 1984. The site is close to the border with Bangladesh.
According to UCIL - it abandoned exploration in 1992 following strong opposition from locals - areas within a 20 km radius of Mawthabah account for 16 per cent of India's uranium reserves at present levels. Besides belonging to a superior grade, the Meghalaya ore has a recovery percentage of 0.1 compared to 0.02-0.06 at Jadugoda in Jharkhand.
UCIL couldn't just let go of the best uranium source among four promising sites - the others are Singhbhum in Bihar, Bhima Basin area of Karnataka and Yellapur-Peddagattu area of Andhra Pradesh - to meet India's target of producing 20,000 MW of electricity from nuclear power by 2020.
It returned in June 2007 with an Rs 814 crore opencast mining proposal subject to environmental safeguards. This entailed a mandatory public hearing involving the stakeholders in 78 villages spread across 351 hectares.
Since the government has no control on community-owned land in Meghalaya, UCIL talked some 500 inhabitants of six villages in the core project area to sell their land to the government at Rs 18 per sq metre. Prodded by pressure groups such as the Khasi Students Union (KSU), the other villagers stood their ground despite UCIL promising a development package.
A series of political upheavals in Meghalaya put paid to UCIL's bid to get started until last month. On August 24, the Congress-led Meghalaya United Alliance government approved UCIL's development package of Rs 209 crore to be spent from the revised project cost of Rs 1000 crore.
"The Cabinet reviewed the proposal on Wednesday, and we don't see any reason why UCIL cannot go ahead with its development activities," said chief minister DD Lapang.
Alleging a sellout, KSU president Samuel Jyrwa said civil rights group would never allow UCIL mine a radioactive mineral at the cost of the safety of tribal people. "Ours is a fairly literate (64 per cent) state, and many in the uranium belt are aware of what has befallen the tribal people in and around Jadugoda," he added.
The KSU has given the government time until September 15 to revoke the August 24 decision to "let UCIL in through the backdoor".