By Ben Doherty
People power: Spility Langrin Lyngdoh, 81, sits in her home at Domiasiat, north-east India. The government wants her land to mine for uranium but she is refusing to sell. Photo: Ben Doherty
New power plants are being fiercely resisted by violent protest, existing ones are stricken by radiation leaks, and uranium exploration sites are plagued by reports of thievery and smuggling.
And high on a hill in a tiny corner of the country, one woman is holding out against the might of her government's will. Eighty-one-year-old Spility Langrin Lyngdoh has been here, in the village of Domiasiat in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, longer than modern India.
Her father bought this land decades ago – his grave is a few hundred metres from the home where she now sits – and Spility has spent almost her entire life here. She wants it to remain for her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
But beneath the hills her father bought lies uranium: more than 9500 tonnes, the Indian government estimates, the "largest, richest, near-surface and low-cost sandstone-type uranium deposit discovered in India so far".
The state-run Uranium Corporation of India Limited is anxious to begin commercial mining as soon as possible. It plans two open-cut mines over 10 square kilometres. The ore is between eight and 47 metres from the surface. "Site activities are expected to start soon," the corporation says.
An exploratory mine site in the 1990s sat next to Spility's land. A working mine would consume it.
During the exploratory phase, the UCIL set up a camp on her land, and proposed building a road through her village to the mine. It came with a contract to sell the land.
"They asked me to sign their piece of paper," Spility says, "but I refused. This is the land of my family. I should not sell it; it is for my children and my grandchildren to stay here." Spility bargains from a position of unusual strength. She is a member of Meghalaya's Khasi tribe, from whom these hills get their name.
As a "scheduled tribe", her people are recognised under India's constitution, and are empowered with land rights no government of the day can override.
But Spility bargains alone. There were once more people in Domiasiat. The village had a school and half a dozen families. Gradually, however, they left, seeking work and education in distant cities. The school closed a few years ago, and the building has almost collapsed.
Spility's family are the only ones left. Her daughters, children, and grandchildren live in a hardscrabble collection of huts overlooking the valleys of the land they own.
Their village remains beyond roads and running water and mobile phone coverage. The government promised electricity, and, three years ago, brought poles, but no wires.
Spility sees an irony in her land being wanted to power India's mammoth nuclear generators, while she has lived eight decades without a light switch.
But as India's need for power grows, its desire for the ore beneath her feet escalates with it, and she says she feels the pressure.
"But what is money? What use do I have for it? This is the land of our people. I want the government to leave this place and never mine."
Spility says even the exploratory mining – of a few hundred tonnes compared with an operational level of 1500 tonnes a day – was dangerous. Her two adult daughters died while exploratory mining was occurring. While there is no definitive evidence to link their deaths to the mining, "I believed that it killed them", she says.
"A lot of people fell sick, a lot of people died here during that time. They got rashes over their bodies and died quickly. In the river, all the fish were found floating, dead, too."
The UCIL says reports of ill health and environmental damage caused by mining are wrong. It says there is "absolutely no health hazard". And it says that development – electricity, roads, water – in villages like Domiasiat will come with the mine being built.
The UCIL says that only a few families would be displaced by the mine and that the community would benefit from jobs and improved services and infrastructure. Eighty-five per cent of the mine's jobs have been earmarked for locals.
India's future will be nuclear. Driven by the country's almost insatiable need for more energy, the government has ambitious plans for an already burgeoning industry.
Almost every sector of India craves power: villages want it connected, industry requires more of it, and the country's rising middle class demands it around the clock.
There is not enough of it today – even in the country's major cities, massive blackouts are a daily occurrence as demand outstrips supply – and the shortfall is only growing. Four hundred million Indians still live with no electricity, and the government faces pressure to electrify the 100,000-odd Indian villages, like Domiasiat, still off the grid.
India has 20 nuclear reactors operating in six plants, which provide about 3 per cent of the country's energy. But 44 more reactors are either slated for construction or are already being built and, by 2050, India wants a quarter of its energy to be nuclear.
But government plans for new reactors and mines are regularly frustrated by bureaucratic delays and fierce public protests.
Plants under construction are vehemently opposed by those who live nearby. At Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, rolling protests have slowed construction by years. When finished, the proposed plant at Jaitapur in Maharashtra will be the third-largest nuclear plant in the world, but it is being violently resisted, with scores of arrests in protests, dozens injured and one man shot dead by police.
Plants already in operation face problems, too. In two separate incidents within five weeks last year, 40 workers at the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station in Rawatbhata were exposed to radiation leaks.
The year before, four labourers were exposed to radiation at the Kaprakar Atomic Power Station in Gujarat, and in 2009, workers at a nuclear plant in Karnataka state fell ill after radioactive water contaminated their drinking supply.
India's Comptroller and Auditor-General has said the body that oversees nuclear safety in India, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, is ineffective, mired in bureaucracy, and negligent in monitoring safety. More than 60 per cent of inspections of operating or under-construction nuclear power plants were either delayed – up to five months late – or never undertaken at all, the auditor found.
But despite regulatory delays and operational setbacks – and a growing public uneasiness since Fukushima – the government is anxious to secure its energy future.
The country's uranium supplies are too small to supply its burgeoning industry on their own, so it is looking overseas. Australia, with 40 per cent of the world's mineable high-grade uranium deposits, is set to become India's newest, and potentially one of its most significant, nuclear partners.
The Labor government's decision to allow uranium sales to India, after a decades-long ban, has delighted Indian authorities, and bureaucrats from both sides are thrashing out the details of a safeguards agreement. Negotiation is expected to take up to two years.
From Spility's seat by the window of her sun-baked hut, diplomatic negotiations over uranium sales could not be of less interest, despite their possible consequence.
She says she does not begrudge India seeking more secure energy, even if she does not believe she will benefit from it. But, she says, the country's development should not come at the expense of its poorest.
"We are not powerful people. Leave our land alone. This land is all we have."