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Lounge Heroes | Ashish Birulee: Rising out of a nuclear wasteland

This anti-nuclear activist and photojournalist from Jharkhand’s Jadugoda is fighting for the rights of his people and making their stories heard

Ashish Birulee.
Ashish Birulee.

If I lose my land, I will not have a place to be laid to rest once I die. And that terrifies me," says Ashish Birulee, 29, an activist and photojournalist from the Adivasi Ho community in Jharkhand’s Jadugoda. According to custom, members of a family are buried side by side on their own land. Birulee hopes that when his time comes, he will be buried next to his grandfather, a uranium miner who died of lung cancer.

It is the fear of forced displacement, experiences with the ubiquitous disease and a longing for what is seen as a “customary death" that has driven Birulee to do what he does today. Over the last few years, he has started documenting oral narratives and fighting for safer environs for his community.

By 2032, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) plans to increase its nuclear capacity tenfold —generating 60,000 MW. As journalist Chinky Shukla wrote in the Hindustan Times, “... progress, they say, comes at a price. Jadugoda, in the eastern state of Jharkhand, is that price."

Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) , a public sector unit, has been scraping uranium ore from six mines spread across the hills in Birulee’s home town. And Jadugoda, home to the world’s finest uranium ore—magnesium diuranate—has been seeing a high number of cases of congenital deformities, deaths due to cancer, reduced life expectancy and a host of physical and mental health issues.

“Radiation is not something you can see," says Birulee. “When there is a fear of displacement due to the construction of a dam, people protest; when there is a fire, people run in the other direction; but radiation is a slow, invisible poison."

Birulee’s tryst with activism began early. His father founded the Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation (Joar) in 1998, when there were plans to turn a local holy spot—or pavitra sthal—into a third tailing pond, where radioactive waste would be dumped. As a young boy, he would watch, understanding little but taking it all in.

“Raising your voice against uranium mining is seen as an anti-national act," Birulee says—an attitude that has not changed in two decades.

Many of his friends, he recalls, attended the Atomic Energy Central School run by the government in Jadugoda. “From them, and students I have spoken to, we know that they are not allowed to question the practice of uranium mining in class, they are scolded or mocked," he says.

Earlier this year, inspired by (climate activist) Greta Thunberg, Birulee and other young people from the community came together to start the Jharkhand chapter of Fridays For Future, where they could discuss the environmental and humanitarian impact of radiation. “Since the older villagers are uneducated, it is difficult to explain the concept of radiation to them," adds Birulee.

According to the Hindustan Times article, over 100,000 tons of nuclear waste is stored in the tailing ponds of Jadugoda, the gases and radiation contaminating the water, soil and vegetation. “The locals know something about the tailing ponds makes them breathless but that’s about it. There is no way to articulate a cause, no way to understand the long-term implications."

In the early 2000s, Birulee and another student from Jharkhand were selected for a youth conference in Japan. “I went to Hiroshima. Until then, I had thought the uranium for the bombs dropped there in 1945 was made in Jadugoda; it used to fill me with guilt. But then I began to understand what a big industry this is," he says. Meeting hibakusha—those affected by the atomic bombings—gave him a new perspective on his home.

When he returned, he began playing guide and translator to journalists and researchers who came to study Jadugoda. But he soon realized they would have to take action themselves. “People come, write about us, then it creates some outrage. But eventually people forget," he says. “I decided I will be a medium to consistently communicate the stories of my people and my land to the world."

He has made a photo-documentary titled Jadugoda Unumo Tana, or Jadugoda is drowning in the nuclear greed (as Birulee translates it), and spends his days speaking to people and sharing their stories and traditions on the digital publication Gaon Connection and an Instagram page, Adivasi Lives Matter, of which he is a founding member. “With the page, we thought, why not allow Adivasis to be their own content creators, why not allow them to tell their own stories?" Today, the account has nearly 12,000 followers.

Birulee is also more involved with Joar. Each step is important, he says. “Some ore would be rejected owing to low levels of uranium; these resemble rocks and would be given to locals to use to build boundary walls around their homes, this is so dangerous," he says. After protests and negotiations with UCIL, initiated through Joar and international rights groups, this practice has been stopped.

“We have always been told that none of what happens to us physically is a result of radioactive waste—it’s because Adivasis are unhygienic or malnourished," says Birulee. “But if you compare these effects to those in Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Dauphin County, it’s the same."

Owing to Joar’s efforts, says Birulee, miners have been given space to leave their contaminated uniforms instead of taking them home, trucks that carry radioactive waste have been covered to reduce exposure and fencing and boards have been put up near the tailing ponds.

Birulee, who also organizes health camps, wants to write a book about his home and community one day. He is not a Harry Potter fan but he hopes that when it’s published, it will be so widely read that he becomes “as popular as J.K. Rowling". But even if none of this happens, Birulee is certain of one thing: “People must not forget us. We live in Jadugoda—the land of magic—now a nuclear dumping ground. I will never stop fighting for the rights of my people."

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