Sanjay Gope has never missed a step, this is because he has never taken one. The 18-year-old has been in a wheelchair all his life.
Sanjay Gope comes from Bango, a village six kilometres from the Uranium Corporation of India Limited’s (UCIL) mine in Jaduguda town, in Purbi (East) Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, the poorest state of India. UCIL, a government of India entity, dug its first mine there in 1967. The ore processed in Jaduguda and six other nearby mines is converted into yellowcake (a mixture of uranium oxides) and sent to the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad.
Sanjay’s father is a daily wage labourer, his mother works in the paddy fields – as do most of the people in these villages. A few work in the UCIL mines, others say they were promised jobs that failed to come their way. When Sanjay was two, his parents took him to the UCIL hospital because he did not walk. The doctors assured Sanjay’s parents that they did not need to worry. So they waited patiently, but their son never took his first step – or any steps.
Sanjay is among many children in Bango – a village of around 800 people (most from the Santal, Munda, Oraon, Ho, Bhumij and Kharia tribes) – who were born with congenital deformities or died because of them. According to a 2007 study by the group Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, the rate of children dying from such defects was 5.86 times higher in villages close to the mine (0-2.5 kilometres) than those in settlements 30-35 kilometres away. Women in these villages have reported a high number of miscarriages. Diseases like cancer and tuberculosis have killed many who worked in the mines or lived near the processing plants and “tailing ponds” (deposits of toxic slurry left from processing uranium ore).
Indian and international scientists have long reported that these deformities and diseases are linked to high radiation levels and radioactive debris. Settlements around toxic tailing ponds, they claim, are particularly vulnerable because villagers inevitably come into contact with these waters. Villagers use poisonous water of the river Subarnarekha without being aware of the consequences. However, UCIL says on its website that “the diseases … are not due to radiation but attributed to malnutrition, malaria and unhygienic living conditions [in the villages], and so on”.
UCIL has seven mines in East Singhbhum including Jaduguda. The issue of lethal effects of radiation has come up in court cases, including public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court (SC) of India. In 2004, a three-judge SC bench dismissed the PIL, reportedly relying on an affidavit filed by the Atomic Energy Commission, which stated that “adequate steps have been taken to check and control the radiation out of the uranium waste”. People’s movements, in and around Jaduguda, have for long highlighted the heavy price villagers pay for their country’s need for uranium.
Subhrajit Sen was born in the small town of Chandannagar, an old French Colony of India, near Kolkata. He is currently studying documentary photography under Saiful Huq Omi at Counter Foto in Bangladesh. Since September 2016, Subhrajit has been working on a photo-story titled, “Death Valley”. Through this work, he would like to offer a glimpse of the unmitigated suffering of the residents of Jaduguda who have been affected by radioactive pollution.Visit Instagram