Saturday, 7 March 2009
Uranium and urinals
I returned yesterday evening from a five day research trip to Meghalaya State in northeast India. The reason for my visit is that the State, which lies on Bangladesh's northern border, is home to coal mines which are reputedly a destination for trafficked Nepalese children. I will post on that subject tomorrow. There are also significant uranium deposits in the eastern part of Meghalaya and, as India flexes its nuclear muscle, this has become a highly important national resource. The deposits though lie in tribal lands and there have been strong local objections to the potential for mining to leave a legacy of lasting environmental damage and a very long term health hazard. It appears that these objections have been largely overcome recently, most likely through local leaders being bought off at the expense of the environment and the poor people the leaders are supposed to represent. Mining will start soon.
It is a cliche to write that the "incredible" India of the tourist brochures is a land of contrasts but I am constantly amazed by how this new world power can have such ambitious national and international goals while showing so much disregard for the basic needs of its population. These include provision for essential bodily functions. On the trip down to Meghalaya I stopped off in Siliguri and after a light meal in a cafe opposite the railway station decided to use the lavatory at the rear of the premises. Beyond the door pictured top right lurked the worst toilet that I have ever used in my life. It consisted of nothing apart from a tiled room with two foot pedestals. Essentially the toilet receptacle was the floor around these comparatively dry islands with drainage being through seepage from around the floor margins. When you see an indoor facility like this you might justifiably prefer a simpler al fresco solution but later on in the trip I was warned that this option can come at a price. See the picture bottom right.
It was with some relief that we reached the Nepal border late yesterday morning. However this was short-lived as upon arrival we were advised that there was an ongoing "bandh" (strike) that was paralysing the south of the country and potentially preventing us from getting to the domestic airport and catching our flight from there home to Kathmandu. The strike, which started five days ago and is indefinite, has been called by the indigenous Tharu people who have objected to being grouped with the ethnic Indian (Madhesi) population in the discussions that are underway about the shape of the future all-inclusive "new" Nepal. During bandhs roads are blocked with rocks and fallen trees to prevent vehicular movement but we made it through by hitching a ride in an ambulance. The ambulance disgorged its patient at the airport, an unfortunate young woman who was clearly very seriously ill; she had no medical carer and all that the airport could provide was a wheelchair that didn't have any brakes. My colleague Dilu Tamang went off to find a couple of bricks to put behind the rear wheels. The woman's accompanying relatives were doing all that they could to try to get her on to the earliest flight possible, through showing her hospital notes and a doctor's letter to the airport staff. I imagine that they succeeded in the end but Nepal is no country for sick young women.
I read in the papers this morning that three people were killed yesterday because of this unrest. The police opened fire on protesters at a road blockade killing two and the locals retaliated later by hacking a policeman to death. If this strike continues it will add significantly to the national problems as much of Nepal's food and fuel supplies have to come north by road from India through this troubled region. As if the country hasn't enough to think about - as predicted in my last post the energy crisis deepened while we were away. We now have just four hours of electricity per day.