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Yellow fever

Deep in Meghalaya’s leech-infested jungles, India is on a desperate search for uranium — for electricity, medicine and its nuclear defence programme. The footsoldiers are cliff-hanging geologists hunting for rocks 65 million years old, reports Reshma Patil.

india Updated: Jun 24, 2007 05:07 IST
Reshma Patil

In November, 40-plus geologist Chandrashekhar Gupta will disappear in Meghalaya’s jungles for six months with a jeep-full of rations, tents, a faithful Khasi cook and crude rope ladders twined by tribals for whom catapults are as common as cellphones in cities.

The ladders would make a professional mountaineer shudder.

Gupta will pray that his ladder will hold as he dangles 60 to 200 metres down cliffs, seeking a hot ‘yellow cake’ for India’s nuclear power programme. He will search for the country’s richest, largest uranium reserves trapped unused in rocks here since the Age of Dinosaurs.

With uranium prices soaring today in global stock markets, forecasters expect a global uranium shortage unless new mines feed supplies for nuclear power reactors and weapons projects. The Department of Atomic Energy’s spokesperson S K Malhotra calls uranium the ‘backbone’ of India’s nuclear power programme.

That’s why geologists slither down cliffs whatever the risk. “Sometimes we find only a weak tree to sling the rope and risk a fall,’’ says Gupta at the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD), Shillong.

“But a geologist can’t be afraid of heights. This is extreme exploration... it can’t get tougher."

In 2003, Gupta broke his right ankle halfway down a cliff strewn with scorpions, leeches and flesh-eating insects that crawl under one’s skin and are removed by holding a burning matchstick near the wound.

His labourers helped him up the ladder on one leg for five excruciating hours to the top and further to base camp. A geologist’s typical tent has a floral print for mood elevation, a porch, bedroom, ante-chamber, table, chair, cot, red carpet. Next day he made it to medical help and a 45-day cast.

“If you had died, I would have chopped off your head to take to your bosses, since we couldn’t have carried your body,” a tribal labourer had joked.

With no telephone contact in the hostile terrain, AMD footsoldiers in Meghalaya have covered only three per cent of the mountain state’s 1,167 sq km uranium hotspots.

India’s only active uranium mines, four of them in Jharkhand, yield just 50 to 60 gm uranium per one tonne ore. Meghalaya’s mines, planned to last 24 years, could yield double that.

Yet the reserves lie unused since identification in 1984, due to opposition from fringe political outfits over radiation (scientists say levels will be safe) and damage to the pristine ecosystem from blasting, drilling and effluents at 820 m above sea level.

But India has a target of 25 per cent clean electricity from nuclear power (which releases no heat-trapping emissions) by 2050. With a world high of eight nuclear power reactors under construction and uranium imports unlikely, attention is once again on isolated Meghalaya.

A dead-end in no-man’s land

On June 12, in Meghalaya, as we wind up the West Khasi hills, the only sounds are that of a warbling freshwater stream and the revving of our Sumo as our sulking driver coaxes it down a slithery slope — the remains of a road — across the rocky stream and uphill.

We follow on foot and a tribal boy lends us a hand to cross the water on a wobbly log floating across.

Our destination is Nongbah Jynrin, a tribal hamlet of 15 houses barely 16 km from the Bangladesh border. The previous night, atomic energy officials had borrowed 20 kg salt from tribals and sprinkled it over a patch of grass.

We didn’t make it, though the salt would have prevented leeches slinking up our legs. Ahead on the mountainous dirt track in remote Meghalaya, was a two-feet deep sinkhole of slush. “No further.’’ The driver threw up his hands, and squatted to smoke.

The marooned village was 15 km away. The clouds drifted down and visibility wafted away.

Despite our 4.45 am exit from Shillong, only 130 km but six hours away by non-motorable tracks, past military checkpoints, by hilltops sprinkled with graves and soldiers watchful against threats from anti-mining activists to roll down rocks on vehicles, we hit a dead-end.

A dead-end has also stalled uranium mining here. The mineral lies trapped here in rocks millions of years old and conveniently close to the surface, so underground mining won’t be needed. The riches are spread over settlements where tribals burn forestland for agriculture, (but also plant trees) and emerge on horseback or foot once a week to buy torch batteries at a bazaar with the nearest defunct primary healthcare centre. No Khasi doctor wants to work here.

When we reach the centre, it is temporary Base Camp Uranium, teeming with worn-out police and atomic energy officials to convince locals that mining is safe.

Tribals from six villages in the mining zone sit on the salty patch with a white flag. The opposition, from villages in a five-km radius, wave black flags. Leaders of the Khasi Students Union (KSU) are still in hiding, to avoid arrests for picketing, roadblocks and sponsoring anti-mining bandhs.

“We invited KSU to go to Jharkhand to check for health hazards. They refused,’’ says H S Shylla, a leader of the Khasi Hills Autonomous Development Council. "We are convinced the health hazards are unproven.”

“Mining will bring progress, but what will happen after the mines are used up?" asks Playing Star, geography lecturer at a college 70 km away, who couldn’t make it past the extinct road to the hearing.

After environmental clearances, the Rs 814-crore project (a 2004 estimate) can be developed in three years. “We will ensure that radioactivity in the public domain will be within safe limits,’’ says Malhotra.

We wanted to return, maybe by truck. But the AMD advised: “The hearing stirred a hornet’s nest. The police have left. It’s not safe."

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