Manju Das, 30, lost her first born within a week of giving birth. Sadly, her second child had succumbed within a week of being born too. Their third and only surviving child is now five years old. The boy is thalassaemic and requires weekly blood transfusions. Manju and her family live close to one of the tailing ponds where the waste from the Jaduguda uranium mines in Jharkhand is dumped. Manju's husband is a worker in those very mines.
Lakshmi Das is married and in her early thirties. She has had two abortions and a still-born baby so far. "It had no face... nothing," Lakshmi struggles to explain, "It's head and face was not formed at all." She too lives near the mines.
Sumitra Soren gave birth to four children, but none survived beyond their first week. Sumitra, too, lives in the vicinity of the Jaduguda mines.
Binneta Kui is getting close to 30 but all the marriage proposals made by her family have been declined. "No one wants to marry girls from villages close to the mines," she explains, "Even if a marriage does occur, the young women are sent back home if they fail to conceive or have repeated abortions."
Manju, Lakshmi, Sumitra and Binneta are very well aware that the disasters in their lives have been caused by the radiation from uranium mines. However, the Uranium Company of India Limited (UCIL), which has been carrying out mining activities in Jaduguda, Bhatin and Navapahar in the East Singhbhoom district of Jharkhand for the last 40 years, and the government, insist there is no problem. They have repeatedly turned a deaf ear to the questions posed by the local populace regarding the impact of radiation on their health. They say that it's 'alcoholism, malnutrition and bad sanitary conditions' that are responsible for their health problems and certainly not mining.
A new study released earlier this year on the health status of the indigenous Ho, Santhal, Munda and Mahali tribals living in the vicinity of the Jaduguda mines confirms that there is an alarming rise in radiation-related health disorders afflicting women. Among such disorders are spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, child mortality and congenital birth defects.
This study was conducted between May - August 2007 by a four-member team from Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD), the Indian chapter of the Nobel-prize awardee organization International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), and by the Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation (JOAR)
The study covers a population of 9,116 (2,118 households) in five villages (or study villages), located within a 2.5 kilometre radius of three mines, one ore processing plant and three tailing ponds belonging to UCIL; and a population of 8,567 (1,956 households) in control villages (or reference villages), 30 kilometers away from the mines. The study is based both on health surveys carried out by qualified medics as well as testimonies by residents, obtained through questionnaires and discussion.
According to IDPD's Dr Shakeel Ur Rahman, who led the study team, while radiation has a hugely damaging effect on health in general, it is the gonads that are most affected. And, "of all the reproductive parts in humans, both male and female, the ovary is the most vulnerable to radiation."
The first and most heart-rending impact of radiation on women is the birth of children with congenital defects. In the study, the congenital deformity prevalence was surprisingly high, at 4.49 per cent in the study villages, as compared to just 2.49 per cent in the reference villages. The percentage of infant death due to congenital deformities, as reported by mothers, is several times higher - 9.25 in study villages, as against just 1.70 in the reference villages.
These deformities come in many forms - heads that are too large or too small, extra digits (fingers, toes) or missing ones, asymmetrical growth resulting in one side of the body being bigger than the other, Downs Syndrome, and so on. The untold misery brought on women by the birth - or death - of such children cannot even be imagined.
Manju, for instance, has to bear the emotional, physical and financial strain of hopelessly struggling to keep her only son alive through weekly blood transfusions. "How long can I keep my son alive on transfusions?" Her voice quivers as she speaks, "One day, he will die like my other two children. I have told my husband many times that we should leave this place and go, but we have no support apart from his job in the mines."
The figures for primary sterility in couples - inability to conceive even after three years of marriage - is 9.60 per cent in study villages, as against 6.27 per cent in the reference villages. Spontaneous abortions are also common among the women of Jaduguda, although the difference in the prevalence rates between the study and control villages is not statistically significant.
Ghanshyam Biruli, president of JOAR and a tribal resident of Jaduguda, describes the societal and psychological pressures that are mounting on the women due to radiation-related health problems. "Pregnancy and child-birth are events of great joy among tribal people, but for the last 30 years, pregnancy has become a time of tension for these communities. We are always worrying about whether the child will be normal," he reveals.
And the most heartless and shocking part of this sorry state of affairs is that UCIL has refused to take any responsibility for this unbearable situation. In fact, Ramendra Gupta, CMD, UCIL, dismisses the present study and several others undertaken by JOAR in the past as 'not true.' "The issue," he says, "has been magnified by just one NGO for its own motives."
Gupta, however, has no answer as to why international safety standards are being violated in the mines. Over the years, successive UCIL chairmen have denied that the open dumping of mine tailing (waste) close to the villages exposes villagers to radiation. The many safety disasters in the last four decades have not been deemed serious enough to merit any attention. Even today villagers are living in houses constructed out of mine tailings that the UCIL has provided to them.
"Since the UCIL came into action here, we have been living with illnesses that we had never even heard of or seen before," says elderly Kalipodo Murmu, "Even the seeds in local fruits are deformed, so how can we expect normal human children?"
No authority appears to be even close to addressing this heart-rending question. And bereft of other options, mothers in this radiation belt live in a state of hopelessness and helplessness.