Meghalaya’s Uranium Curse

First published on Shillong Daily – Shillong’s only alternative news portal

There is an obsession with assessing the health of a country’s economy through its GDP numbers. In such a model, one way of measuring growth is by looking at the country’s energy consumption, with rising consumption indicating a growing economy.

This energy is currently derived mostly from non-renewable resources, like coal, petroleum etc., with renewable resources like wind, solar, geothermal etc., contributing less than 20% of the global energy consumption. Due to the inexhaustible appetite of the growth machine (only a growing economy is a good economy), the non-renewable resources face exhaustion in the near future unless new deposits are discovered. It is here that climate change comes as an unexpected boon.

Many of the permanent ice sheets in the Arctic are beginning to melt which will open a whole new area for resource exploration in the future. But it again depends on whether any substantial deposits are found and the economic viability of their extraction. It may delay but will not be able to eliminate the inevitable exhaustion of non-renewable resources. It is in this context that access and control of energy resources becomes a very important concern for economic growth and the political benefits derived from it.

The recent Chilcot Report in Britain lambasted the British government’s role in the Iraq Invasion confirming the illegality of the whole invasion. The subsequent anarchy introduced by the invasion gave birth to ISIS and is responsible for the present lawless state of affairs in the region beyond Iraq as well.

Many believed it was control of oil that was the main driving force behind the invasion and indeed after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, American and British companies got rewarded with lucrative oil contracts. However, the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has defended his decisions by stating it to be in national as well as global interests. This is where things get a little murkier, because one can question that economics behind the decision but concerns of all kinds can be ignored by citing national or international, especially, security concerns. All kinds of atrocities and injustices can be reconciled by recourse to this narrative.

The issue of uranium mining in Meghalaya is also couched in national interest terms and this is what makes it a very dangerous issue. Until now there has been some refrain on the part of the central government to refrain from mining but recently Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) floated a tender for setting up set up open-pit mine and processing plant of uranium ore in South West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya.

The company is based in Jaduguda, Jharkhand, which is the site of the infamous uranium mines that have played havoc on the lives of the local tribals. Death and diseases due to radioactive contamination is rampant in the area with even the unborn children being in danger. In fact, birth defects are a common occurrence.

However, in spite of the reports and documentaries highlighting the dangers of uranium mining, national interest prevails. The lives of few thousand tribals are hardly valuable when the interest of the country as a whole is considered. And now this danger is rearing its head in our state as well.

The operation of the law of the land is supposed to be the same for everyone. However, experience proves otherwise. In case of some issues, though the law itself is inconsistent with certain regions being at perpetual disadvantage. The Chottanagpur Plateau (of which Meghalaya is also a part) which is the home of the indigenous Indian tribals (linguistic affinity with the Khasis) has been blessed with rich plethora of mineral resources. Instead of it being a boon it has proved to be their curse.

Their land confiscated, livelihood destroyed the first people have become one of the most wretched community in the country. This gave birth to extremist movements like the Maoist who have since been fighting the government machinery bent on serving the national interest rather than that of the local population. Violence, however, only breeds violence. In the struggle many innocent have lost their lives which, ironically, has given more power to the state to use intensified coercive strategies to suppress the insurgents.

When there is a lack of effective governance on the ground, human rights can be ignored and exploitation can go unhindered. This is a perfect example of ‘resource curse’. The present situation in the Middle East is a theatre where the repercussions of abundant resources playing havoc on the lives of ordinary people are being played out on a daily basis. In this region, either democracy is absent, e.g., Saudi Arabia, or wherever there is an attempt to implement it law and order is absent, e.g., Iraq. Is Meghalaya also looking down to go this road?

In response to UCIL’s decision on uranium mining, the Chief Minister Dr. Mukul Sangma, stated that such a move will create a law and order problem and the company will have to bear the responsibility for such a situation. This is a very irresponsible statement by the CM who seems not to realise the larger political implications of the whole issue. By floating the tender for uranium mining, the UCIL could have been gauging the political establishment’s reaction and would be delighted by the response.

The only thing they need to do is provoke a response from the public which would create an untenable situation in which they would stand vindicated. This has already started with the controversy surrounding the two-lane road project to Mawthabah. Pro-road groups on the ground will try to make the issue into a pro-development and anti-development struggle while UCIL will bring in the national interest issue.

The opposition will be surrounded and branded as anti-development and anti-national which will be used to hound and harass them. Even the law and order will be beneficial for the pro-mining camp because it will allow the state to use coercive tactics to suppress the anti-mining camp. Destruction of credibility is the most decisive strategy to break a movement. For the powers-that-be it will mean victory and when the dust settles, exploitation can start unchallenged. By not directly condemning the issue of tender, the state government has created a monster which in the long run may prove disastrous for them as well.

The North-East is not alien to dismissal of elected governments and imposition of President’s rule due to law and order problem. Notwithstanding the defeat of the Central Government’s machinations, the trends in the country do not bode well for the Congress Government in the state.

Roads are indeed essential for development but they in themselves do not create development. As one commentator in a television debate stated that if road were the solution to development urban poverty would have disappeared a long time ago. But roads and especially transport networks have always been used for political gains.

The early railway network in the country was used by the British to extract resources from the surrounding hinterland to transport them to ports like Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata), and Madras (Chennai) for export. It was later expanded after the Uprising of 1857 to help move troops around the country for deployment. The improvement of transport infrastructure along the Indian border by the Chinese was also aimed at strategic concerns rather than economic compulsions.

The two-lane project to Mawthabah has to be looked in terms of the existing traffic and probable future requirements. If the economic logic (without taking uranium mining into consideration) does not demand a two land project, then there is no doubt that the development narrative is a false one. It will also mean a waste of public money at a time when both the state and the central government have been complaining of constrained financial resources.

Even if one is to be believed that construction of the road infrastructure will bring about development it depends on many factors. Infrastructure can help the local economy by giving employment to local workforce and providing them with income generating demand. But if the workforce is going to be brought from outside, which is probably what will happen, the local economy stands to gain nothing.

Regarding the indirect benefits of improvement in transportation, it depends on whether a two-lane project is required or just a single lane would suffice. Instead the surplus money can be used to improve the local livelihood and then expand the road to accommodate the extra traffic generated. Otherwise, spending money of a two lane will not bring any economic benefit. The cost however, will be disastrous to the lives of the local people.

The uranium mining issue is resurfacing at a time when the state is still reeling from the financial effects of the coal ban. The ban was imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on the 17th April 2014because of the ill effects of an unregulated coal mining on the environment and health of the population. Similar arguments were made in the Supreme Court judgement on 12th December 1996 which imposed a blanket ban of all kinds of timber felling in the state.

But rest assured the impact of uranium mining on the environment or dangers to human lives will not be criteria through which it will be assessed. It will be evaluated through the prism of national interest. Whether that abstract interest corresponds to the actual interest of the people on the ground whose lives are directly affected will be of no consequence. But a nation which is not for everyone is not for anyone and a government which tramples on the rights of one group will eventually come after the rights of all.

The opposition to uranium mining is not just a fight against the ill-effects of mining a dangerous substance but a struggle for democracy and the defence of the principles meant to safeguard humanity itself.

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Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

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