In a remote, rain-drenched forest of Meghalaya, a police contingent has been guarding a nervous group of officials, huddling in tents over the weekend, as they begin a tension-filled mission of great importance to India’s nuclear programme.
The tents house officials from the department of atomic energy, a key agency in the civilian nuclear deal India is negotiating with the US. On Tuesday, the officials will attend a central government-mandated ‘public hearing’ on the mining of uranium, facing, possibly, the hostility of several thousand villagers who live in the middle of India’s richest uranium belt.
The tortuous negotiations with the Americans have triggered a redoubling of government efforts to make India self-reliant in nuclear raw material, and explore and double its uranium reserves in five years.
But here, in the interiors of a mountainous state that accounts for 16 per cent of India’s uranium reserves, continuous protests, roadblocks, picketing, and a 36-hour shutdown that began Monday morning, provides every indication that getting the uranium out is going to be a tough task.
At the centre of the drama is the tribal village of Nongbah Jynrin. Anti-mining groups, including the Khasi Students Union (KSU) are opposing the project on health and ecological concerns. There was violence and arson on Monday. Some KSU leaders were sent to jail. “Nothing will stop us from opposing the project,” KSU president Samuel Jyrwa said.
An estimated 13,500 tonnes of low-cost ‘sandstone-type’ uranium deposits in Meghalaya, eyed even by uranium-rich Australia as potential investment, could greatly help India’s nuclear research.
“Nongbah Jynrin is an ordinary, isolated village that got a dirt track for the uranium hearing,” said a Meghalaya government spokesperson, asking not to be identified. The officials who are trekking there might have considered flying, but the weather has been too unpredictable.
“It’s been raining heavily in these parts, and going to the public hearing site will be very difficult,” West Khasi Hills deputy commissioner Freeman Kharlyngdoh, said. He added extra precautions has been taken to ensure the public hearing takes place.
Chief Minister DD Lapang believes the anti-uranium lobby is jumping the gun. “Seeking the opinion of 15,000 people does not mean sanctioning the project. It’s a democratic process that needs to be done,” he said. The Atomic Mineral Division’s investigations in 1992 had put the uranium ore deposits under a cluster of villages in Domiasiat and adjoining Wakhyn at 13,500 tonnes, accounting for 16 per cent of India’s uranium reserves.
With a recovery percentage of 0.1, Domiasiat-Wakhyn scores over Jharkhand’s Jaduguda (0.02 to 0.06 per cent), and is believed to be crucial for the nuclear programme. The Uranium Corporation of India Ltd hopes to produce 250 tonnes of yellow cake (U-3O8) per year from Domiasiat, renamed Kylleng-Pyndemsohiong-Mawthabah Uranium Mining Project in 2005.