“Take photos and videos… and tell them what has this factory has done to our lives,” says an angry L Gangulavva (50) as she collects water from a tanker at KK Kotala village in Andhra Pradesh.
KK Kotala is one of the most affected villages in the area, facing soil and groundwater contamination ever since the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) set up a mine and a processing plant in the neighbouring village of Tummalapalle.
The village that once had 600 to 700 residents is now down to less than 500 residents, according to Gangulavva, who says that many left the village fearing outbreak of diseases.
Locals allege that the uranium mine’s tailing pond, a wet storage area where the by-products discharged from the mine are transported by a pipeline for containment, is not leak-proof. Due to this, they say that the slush enters their farms and water sources, thereby affecting agriculture and other forms of livelihood in the area.
Tummalapalle mine in Kadapa district is estimated to hold one of the largest reserves of uranium in the world. Though UCIL got the Centre’s clearance in 2006, the mine was formally inaugurated in 2012. It was reported that it would alone cater to 25% of the uranium requirement for nuclear power plants in the country once it was fully operational, while some reports suggested that the reserves may last beyond 2050.
The land acquisition for the plant was allegedly done in a highly coercive manner, with public hearings before environmental clearances witnessing police action against villagers.
The tailing pond is about 6 km from the ore processing plant and is constructed between the hills situated close to KK Kotala. Other nearby villages include Mabbuchintalapalli, Bhumayagaripalli and Kanumalavaripalli, which also have a population of less than 1,000 each.
Singisetti Shiva, a young farmer from KK Kotala, alleges, “This is happening due to lack of standards in the construction of the tailing pond.”
He blames the contractors who took up the project of building the tailing pond and accuses them of negligence.
S Shankaraiah, a farmer who owns 6 acres of land a few kilometres from the tailing pond, has another tragic story to tell. He has cultivated banana in 3 aces and vegetables such as tomatoes and chillies in the other 3 acres. He spent Rs 1.60 lakh per acre for his banana crop, while spending around Rs 50,000 on each acre of the vegetable crop.
When TNM visited his banana fields, it was evident that a high amount of slurry mixture, which was chemical in nature, had found its way along the drip lines amidst the crop.
“The crop is nine months old, by now it should have yielded and been ready to transport to the market. However, I am yet to get any ripe bananas,” says a dejected Shankaraiah.
The case of Bheemu Nayak, another farmer who sowed groundnut on his 3 acres, is also no different. “This crop is six months old but is yet to yield any buds,” he says, holding up some of the plants.
While tomatoes in several fields showed changed colouring and dark spots, several chilli plants died, presumably due to chemical leakage in the soil.
G Mahesh Reddy, a farmer from Mabbuchintalapalli told TNM that several farmers had stopped cultivation fearing pollution in the soil.
“While our crops are being damaged on one hand, we don’t even know how safe our drinking water is,” he adds.
Ramesh (22), a driver, says, “If this groundwater pollution level increases, we might have to leave the village like everyone else.”
While the alleged contamination of groundwater has ruined agriculture, the cattle in these villages are also said to be dying much sooner due to water pollution. Locals claim that cows, goats and sheep died as they entered ponds where chemicals from the UCIL pipelines had allegedly leaked.
Consumption of the water also results in reproductive problems in animals, as the number of cattle has come down from 200 to around 50 animals, according to locals.
Kotte Rayudu (56), who sits beside his five cows stroking one in particular, says, “Her calf died a few days ago at the time of delivery. This is happening because they drank water and entered those ponds.”
When TNM visited a government primary school with a single teacher and nine students, it was learnt that at least four students suffered from unusual skin diseases, including rashes and blisters.
Activists and locals are now demanding that the UCIL must adopt measures to tackle the pollution as per The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.
Villages around the mine claim a steady decline in the quality of soil and water over the past few years.
In December 2016, it was reported that researchers from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University (JNTU), Anantapur, analysed samples of water and soil and said, “The increased levels of barium, arsenic, cobalt, chromium, copper, molybdenum, lead, vanadium and yttrium are a major concern for suitability of agricultural and other land management practices.”
According to an annual report of the UCIL, “The alkaline pressure leaching process with direct precipitation being adopted in Tummalapalle mill is unique in nature and is being implemented for the first time in an industrial scale after pilot studies.”
Speaking to TNM, Dr K Babu Rao, a retired scientist of the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) and a Human Rights Forum (HRF) activist said this 'unique' method resulted in extreme pollution.
“Trial runs were conducted for the pilot studies from 2012 and for 5 years there was unchecked dumping of chemical wastage … which led to deterioration of the soil in the area,” he said.
Recently, a team of experts from various departments of the AP government constituted a committee to study the impact of the effluents from UCIL on agriculture and allied sectors in the surrounding villages of the same mandal.
The team’s findings (a copy of which is with TNM), sent this month to Kadapa Collector, T Baburao Naidu, reported that soil in the three villages was alkaline with a pH range in between 8.5 and 10 which “generally hinders crop growth.” It also noted that the availability of nutrients for the plants to grow was also very low.
The Ground Water Department observed precipitation along several areas of the drip-pipeline, but suggested that heavy rainfall and shallow water table conditions led to sodium bicarbonate leaching into the water table in the region, thereby indirectly denying that the soil was polluted due to leakage from the tailing pond.
"These lands were not alkaline earlier, the change in soil only took place after the UCIL began uranium ore mining and processing operations," Dr Babu Rao alleged.
In contrast to the official report, locals also strongly feel that the major source of sodium in the soil, is due to the operations of UCIL.
As part of the same report, the Pollution Control Board (PCB) collected various samples of soil and water and said that it would take action against UCIL if it was found that it did not adhere to environmental norms under provisions of the Water and Air Act.
Locals say that UCIL is mulling paying compensation for damaged crops and may also offer jobs for farmers at its complex.
The villagers have a serious concern – that soon they would be left with no choice but to accept what the UCIL offers.
Jayasree Kakumanu, Kadapa district convener of the HRF, states, “This can’t be a permanent solution. There are many things to be considered, including the fact that there is no report on how much radiation people are being exposed to.”
While three villages had planned a protest at UCIL’s main gate on February 25, they later postponed it to March 8.
“UCIL should give a written assurance to the people of these villages that they will give compensation for destroying their livelihoods. There should also be a display of data pertaining to the chemicals used at UCIL for the interest of the people, along with regular health check-ups of the locals,” says Dr Babu Rao.