Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL)’s tender for open cast mining to extract uranium from Mawthabah in South West Khasi hills and also for setting up of processing unit in the area has caught the citizens and even the Chief Minister of the state by surprise. Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL)’s July 2 tender is like a bolt from the blue for the people of the state who have for so long thought that the corporation respect the sentiment of the local people and has done away with the idea of mining uranium in the state. But obviously; UCIL has failed to gauge people’s sentiment towards mining of uranium in the state.
UCIL website mentioned about Kyelleng-Pyndengsohiong, Mawtahbah uranium project, or the KPM uranium project in Meghalaya and it also stated that the sandstone hosted ore body at Killung and Rangam in West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya is the first of its kind to be discovered in the country (spellings as per UCIL website). The website also informed that UCIL has planned to construct open pit mines at this site and a processing plant at Mawthabah, which is in the South West Khasi hills district of Meghalaya.
I must admit at the very outset that I do not have much knowledge on issue of uranium mining and maybe you better informed than me on the subject. But I have some knowledge with regard to impact of mining other minerals and can say with confidence that I have seen with my own eyes and had had many experiences of interacting with people affected by coal and limestone mining in the state. In my humble efforts of trying to understand their problems, I have learned a lot about this activity and more importantly about its detrimental impact on the environment and the people. So, when the news that UCIL is going ahead with its plan to start open pit mining of uranium from the area, a layman that I am, (naturally) have several questions to which I have no answers.
Coal mining has killed all the aquatic lives in the three major rivers which pass through the mining areas of Jaintia hills and all the streams and rivulets in the area are dead and the loss of biodiversity is irreplaceable. The water in the area is not been use not even for washing of cloth and utensils, and the question is; if coal can do this to the rivers, what will happen to the rivers and water bodies in and around the uranium mining area? It is a well known fact that the acidic water from the coal mines of Jaintia hills has also had its impact on the machines used in the Kupli hydro electric project, the question is; if coal can cause so much damage to the environment how can UCIL assure a layman like me that is nothing of this sort will happen with mining of uranium.
To people or agency from outside and even to many of us who have lost touch with our culture; for them rivers are just big drains and maybe for some other people a mode for waterways, but we all know that to the indigenous people of the area, rivers not only have names, but they have persona, they even have stories which consider them as human and in many cases, they were worshipped as deities. In many places of Meghalaya; people consider rivers their mother or their grandmother and their entire lives revolve around the river. Sadly, we have also witnesses this unique culture of people having profound relationship with the rivers gradually disappearing from the people where the dead rivers flow. The young generation of these areas has lost their stories and also the traditions that goes with it, and when the tradition is lost; the relationship that their ancestors use to have with the rivers is also gone forever.
In the limestone mining; the precious top soil was discarded like waste without any consideration of its future use and the same is being carried over by rain water to the plains of Bangladesh. Hence Bangladesh is not only getting our minerals; but we gracefully supply them top soil form the limestone quarry in the border. Limestone mining has not only destroyed forest in the area but even entire hills were removed to extract limestone from underneath the ground. Exotic caves, the biodiversity in and around the caves and the stories that people have about them have also gone.
The general public of the state should be very concern with UCIL’s plan of mining; for simple reason that we have witnessed the damage that has been done to the environment by coal and limestone mining and even stone quarrying. And the other question is do we even want to imagine the kind of impact uranium mining will have in the area. The other cause of concern is the government’s attitude towards any form of mining in the state. Even after the NGT ban on coal mining, the state government is yet to come up with the policy to manage, control and monitor coal, limestone and other types of mining. Now the question is even for mining of these common minerals the government does not have any mechanism in place to manage and control the activity, how can we expect the state government to manage and control mining of rare and sophisticated mineral like uranium?
The reason that we cannot trust the state government with regard to protection of the environment is because it has failed to protect and preserve our environment from being destroyed by coal and limestone mining and this itself is raison d’être that we should not allow mining of uranium in the state. If the state government has failed to protect the environment and by not being able to control mining; is also responsible for the crumbling of tribal culture and traditions, then we have a genuine and a strong ground to oppose mining of the big mineral from our state.
I am highlighting these issues because we still consider ourselves indigenous people and for the autochthons of the place; our relationship with the nature is very strong and vital to our very existence. The reason is; if we lose our culture, our traditions and our stories then can we still call ourselves the native of the land?
In the Khasi-Pnar tradition we also have the folk story about u Thlen and in the local legend of u Thlen; the Khasi-Pnar believe that it originally lives in a cave, and fed by its mother and her uncle the serpent grew very big and become a threat to the community. The reason is because u Thlen which is monster in the form of a snake has a characteristic of a vampire and can be appeased only when fed with human blood. U Thlen on the other hand; in return for feeding it with human blood and flesh, blessed its keepers abundantly with wealth and prosperity.
U Thlen is a symbol of greed that is a human heart and greed can make people do thing which is even against the common good people of the and even their own will for the sake of wealth. The Khasi-Pnar believed that they had killed the beast and did away with greed from the heart of the people except from some of the rich families, but that is not so. Our ancestors may have killed the beast, but greed prevails in the heart of the people. It is difficult to satisfy greed because greed knows no bound. We know this because our ancestors have lived with whatever is underneath the ground for ages and live happily on these rolling hills till we start exploiting the minerals. Our forefathers and mothers had had a profound relationship with the nature around and lived a life of peaceful co-existence with their fellow creations since time immemorial.
But once we start tear down this connection, we start killing and destroying everything around us and even pollute our rivers which are our lifelines. Mining of uranium is like reviving the biggest of all the Thlen in the Khasi-Pnar world, which will again feed only on human blood and as the story goes’ it only feeds on the native blood and not of the outsiders. We should therefore live the Thlen alone to save ourselves and our land.