Featured

Kidney Disease Stalks Rural Odisha, Suspicions Turn to Monazite Mining

It is well known that monazite-mining adversely impacts human health and the ecosystem because of the radiation hazards it brings with it. Research is needed to address local fears about causality.

Tailing deposits outside the Orissa Sands Complex in Chatrapur district. Credit: Ranjana Padhi and Rajinder Singh Negi

Tailing deposits outside the Orissa Sands Complex in Chatrapur district. Credit: Ranjana Padhi and Rajinder Singh Negi

Ranjana Padhi is a feminist activist and writer based in Bhubaneswar. Rajender Singh Negi is a journalist, editor and translator based in New Delhi.

Badaputti (Ganjam district, Odisha): Sitting on a plastic chair with his legs stretched out, wearing a clean white round-neck shirt and a lungi, he seemed like a man who had lost all hope in life and someone who knew that the spectre of death was lurking around, waiting to consume him slowly but surely. He looked frail and weak and had festering wounds in his legs; his soles pale, indicating his anaemic condition. It was frightening to look into his eyes with those shadows of death staring back at you.

P. Jagannath, 51, has been suffering from chronic kidney disease (CKD) for the last two years. Having spent all their life’s savings, his family now has nothing left to continue his treatment. They can barely pay for his medicines and have to skip buying them more often than not. There is no question of affording dialysis any longer.

Till a few weeks ago, he was routinely being taken to hospitals in Berhampur and Bhubaneswar. The family even sold its gold ornaments and other assets on expensive treatment in private hospitals like Seven Hills and Apollo. His son P. Adinarayan had to leave his college studies midway to take over his father’s vocation, that of a barber, to meet daily expenses. As the entire family stood surrounding Jagannath for a photograph, their worn-out faces and torn emotions were eloquent enough of the toll his illness has taken on each one of them.

Jagannath lives in Badaputti village with his family, in one of the 85 two-room tenements that were constructed for landless families under the World Bank-supported Odisha Disaster Rehabilitation Project after the devastating Cyclone Phailin hit Gopalpur on the Bay of Bengal coast in October 2013.

The cursed village

The Terabasa Chowk is on the Gopalpur-Chhatrapur road. Badaputti village begins just after 500-600 meters to the west of this Chowk. The village runs along one kilometre having approximately 700 families.  Pucca houses are lined on both sides of the main village road. At one end of the village, there is a primary and upper primary school established in 1954.

Badaputti was once the stronghold of resistance against a proposed mega steel plant by TISCO that people of Chhatrapur block had successfully stalled. On 19 July 1996, 55-year-old Lakshmi Amma of this village had given up her life trying to save the village and its land. The village is surrounded by cashew plants, kewda bushes and coconut trees. It gives the impression as if it has hidden itself since then.

Out of a population of roughly 3,000 people, almost 200 in this village have been diagnosed with renal ailments since 2013. There are a couple of other villages (Begnipetta and Lakhimpur) from where cases of kidney ailments have also been reported. Approximately 50 deaths have been reported due to kidney failure over the last two years in the area. We were even told by some villagers that the village is now so stigmatised that nobody is ready to marry their daughters and sons with anyone from the village. Elected representatives of the district have turned a blind eye as well.

Gurudeb Behera, a social activist who has been tracking all the diagnostic test results, illnesses and deaths of his fellow villagers, told The Wire, “We suspect that the monazite processing plant owned by the government, situated at a distance of less than 500 metres from the village boundary, is the culprit. We sent a letter to the collector about the health problems possibly caused by monazite in May last year.”

Why suspect monazite mining?

P. Jagannath with his family. Credit: Ranjana Padhi and Rajinder Singh Negi

P. Jagannath with his family. Credit: Ranjana Padhi and Rajinder Singh Negi

This plant is named the Odisha Sands Complex (OSCOM) and is a unit of Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL). It was inaugurated in 2010. Its tailings – huge piles of dumped residue left over from the mineral processing operations – are deposited adjacent to the village. There are suspicions in the area that toxic effluents from the plant have been seeping into the groundwater.

Ninety percent of the population of Badaputti survives on groundwater for agriculture, drinking and daily use. Almost all inhabitants now have RO (reverse osmosis) water purifiers installed in their homes. Those who cannot afford the expensive purifiers end up buying bottled water for consumption. In the village square, a daily wage labourer, G. Damru, was walking down the road with a 20-litre plastic container of water mounted on his shoulder. Drenched in sweat and dishevelled in the sweltering heat, he grinned at us when we asked him why he needed to buy water. He said, “There is no other way but to buy drinking water, as you know the water here is not drinkable.”

It must not be easy to spend Rs 50 for 10 litres – assuming it is available at that rate; sometimes, some vendors sell the liquid at up to Rs 15 per litre. These  landless labourers are barely able to eke out an existence in the crisis-ridden countryside. But then the situation warranted that they rather spend money to buy packaged water to avert worse health problems.

Jagannath is not alone in his misery. D. Lovaraj’s 60-year-old wife and daughter-in-law have been taking Lovaraj to Bhubaneswar for his routine dialysis. They travel twice a week from Badaputti with him to Bhubaneswar, 160 km away. Two years ago, when he was diagnosed with the kidney problem, it cost them Rs 60,000 for the initial treatment in a private hospital in Vishakhapatnam, where his son had then been posted. Lovaraj earned his living by cultivating kewda before he fell ill. His son, Manoj Kumar, told us over the phone that it costs Rs 1,300 for dialysis each time. Injections and medicines cost another Rs 2,500. And if other miscellaneous costs (such as transport) are also added, it comes to about Rs 5,000 per visit.

Lovaraj’s sister G. Saraswathi, 48, has also been complaining of pain in her legs for the last few years, especially in the joints near the ankles, and she was also diagnosed with a kidney problem. She travels to the CARE hospital in Visakhapatnam every two or three weeks, spending Rs 10,000-15,000 every month on medication.

Another family had lost two men to kidney failure in one way. K. Jangamia, 59, had died on the way to a hospital in Bhubaneswar on May 14, 2016, when his condition suddenly deteriorated. He had contracted a kidney disease soon after retiring and returning to his village from serving in the Indian army. He succumbed two years later. His wife K. Mahalaxmi said, “We always feared for his life so long as he remained in the army. We were happy that he had come back. We never knew that death was awaiting him here.”

Only six months later, his son K. Tulsi Rao, who was only 35, was also diagnosed with a kidney ailment. He died on May 7, 2017. He is survived by his wife and two young daughters.

When we visited the family, Tulsi Rao’s wife was away in the kewda fields, guarding the bushes from marauding monkeys. The family depends on kewda cultivation for its income – Rs 50,000-60,000 annually. They have also put their land on lease. It yielded 16-17 quintals of paddy annually. They also earn an income from selling cashew and coconut.

The rare-earths industry

Monazite, a reddish-brown phosphate mineral, contains rare-earth elements like thorium, uranium and lanthanum. The mineral’s crystallised form is found abundantly in sandy beaches. Odisha has the third highest concentration of monazite after Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

The demand for monazite surged in international markets when the demand for thorium and uranium surged. As such, rare-earth minerals including monazite are also vital ingredients of many gadgets, from iPhones and laptops to smart-bombs and tank armour.

In the world, China has been the biggest exporter of rare-earths. Over 90% of rare-earth metals used to be mined in China for export – until it slashed its exports by 70% in 2010 and compelled Western powers to look for alternatives. It was a decisive move by the country to protect itself against foreign ownership of strategic resources and create incentives for foreign companies to bring their manufacturing to China. After being able to provide rare-earth metals at the most competitive rates, China is now more in control of the industry, where the availability of rare-earths and their relation to manufacturing is regulated on its terms.

IREL, the public sector company, had been established in 1979 under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and subsequently intensified its operations as the demand for monazite climbed, especially as the defence sector expanded.

Monazite had earlier been classified as a ‘prescribed substance’: only the Union government could control its mining and transportation. The DAE sought to revise this so private miners could help as well. The department’s goal was to secure at least one million tonnes of monazite sand that private miners could then process.

In recent years, the Centre has stated (p. 29) that it plans to “achieve 40 per cent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy sources by 2030”. Uranium-based reactors are set to be augmented by thorium-based ones.

The search for non-fossil-fuel energy sources is also not without its own set of implications weighing on environmental and public health. For example, in August 2013, the National Green Tribunal had banned sand-mining in the beaches of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. According to Down to Earth, “The ban was in response to a petition filed by the NGT Bar Association, which, among other environmental risks, enumerated risk of radiation from the mining of beach minerals, mostly consisting of rare earths.”

A look at the literature available on monazite mining describes the impact of its radioactive content on public health and the ecosystem – as well as the health hazards posed by the waste generated during processing and the creation of tailing ponds. In a report published in December 2012, the US Environmental Protection Agency clearly states that placer deposits containing monazite are typically associated with higher concentrations of minerals containing radioactive elements.

A report published in 2010 by the British Geological Survey (BGS) discusses the many environmental issues associated with the production of rare-earth elements. These commonly result from insufficient environmental regulations and controls in the areas where the minerals are mined and processed. One of the most significant relates to the radioactivity of some ores. For example, xenotime, a rare-earth phosphate mineral, in the Malaysian placer deposits contains 2% uranium and 0.7% thorium. The BGS report states that this was the reason the Malaysian processing industry failed (p. 15), and that this is also why the processing of beach sands containing monazite has been banned in Australia, China and Europe.

So which safeguards were in place when India inaugurated a 10,000-tonne per year monazite-processing plant?

Need for investigation

S. Vaikundarajan, the founder-chairman of V.V. Mineral. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

S. Vaikundarajan, the founder-chairman of V.V. Mineral. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

India’s eastern coast has long been mined for monazite. V.V. Mineral, a Tamil Nadu company, had been charged with illegal sand-mining and a PIL was filed in the Madras High Court in January 2013. However, the company has denied any allegations of illegal mining: it claimed to have environmental clearances and pointed to the lack of substantial information to link kidney ailments and its activities.

There have also been reports from the Vatsavalasa area in the neighbouring district of Srikakulam, in Andhra Pradesh, of a company called Trimex Sands Private Limited. The company’s CSR initiative spent around Rs 1.5 crore on a dialysis unit. Patients do not have to go to Visakhapatnam or Srikakulam for dialysis any more. But in the same year, it was reported that Trimex had been making thousands of crores by extracting minerals from beach sand, and that monazite and other beach sand minerals worth about Rs 30,000 crore are exported every year from the northern coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh.

Instead of opening hospitals and clinics and such, the causes of CKD need to be studied.

This also needs to happen sooner because sites containing hazardous waste can become particularly problematic during or in the aftermath of natural disasters. Strong winds and rains can exacerbate the problem by transporting the waste through air and water. Odisha’s Ganjam district was severely affected when Phailin hit its coast in 2013, and Badaputti’s monazite plant reportedly suffered damages of over Rs 80 crore. However, the run-off from the tailings into the groundwater has not been explored to this day.

“There are stray reports and possible reasons why chronic kidney disease may happen but it is not at all concrete,” Vineeta Bal, who recently retired as a scientist from the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi, told The Wire. “Uranium in itself is toxic to the kidneys. Once deposited, these heavy metals stay there for a very long period and hence there is always cumulative toxicity. Besides, once there is kidney damage, phosphates that are a part of monazite sands will make it much worse because they are normally cleared by the kidney and an ailing kidney won’t be able to do it. But phosphates will get deposited in kidneys too and make matters worse. This is what is possibly happening to the people in terms of medical information cum speculation.”

Prafulla Samantara, a noted environmentalist who hails from Odisha, said in an interview to The Wire, “This is certainly a matter of investigation. It is not only about kidney disease but other diseases caused by radiation. If only the data of cancer patients from this area who went for treatment to Vellore hospital be made public, the trail of illness and deaths would become longer. They probably have been exposed to radiation since a long time now.”

Complaints by villagers to the district administration and the plant officials have not made any difference. Behera says, “After we sent the letter to the Collector in September last year, we even gave a notice for dharna, if the authorities did not pay heed. A few days later, the Sub-Collector met people and assured them of finding a solution for the problem within a month after the planned meeting. The said meeting never took place.”

Indeed, the demand for rare-earths in the global market cannot be met at the cost of human habitats and the environment. Badaputti can’t be left to its own devices. It is perhaps paying the price of the red alert in urging our attention to a range of interventions by both state and society.

The authors express deep appreciation to the people of Badaputti as well as Tejasvi Hora, University of Waterloo, Canada.