Uranium miners in underground strike

Kolkata (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Desperate workers at a uranium mine are risking their lives to improve their paltry wages by staging an underground hunger strike in flooded tunnels.

More than 4,500 men in four mines went as deep as 170 metres underground on Saturday morning, demanding a 20 per cent pay rise, and have not emerged. The Jadugoda protest has since spread to at least three other local mines and uranium processing plants after the government-run Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) counter-offered 15 per cent.

More urgently, striking workers have stopped pumping water from the mine, leaving the strikers at risk of drowning.

"If the lifts get submerged, the workers would have difficulty in coming out. We have appealed to the miners to continue pumping out the water for their own safety," said Additional District Magistrate Ashok Kumar Sharma. According to UCIL spokesman R.V. Dubey, strikers are refusing to obey orders to come up, saying they will return only after their demands are accepted in writing. "Our efforts to convince them to come up bore no results," Mr Dubey said. "We tried to send food and water down by the lift but they said they are on a hunger strike."

The predominantly tribal workforce is poorly paid, even by Indian standards, and workers are at constant risk of radiation sickness.

According to the Jadugoda Organisation Against Radiation, radiation has killed more than 100 men, women and children since 1994 and caused large-scale radiation sickness among tens of thousands of poor tribespeople living in the shadow of the mines. The Jadugoda uranium mines are the lifeline of India's nuclear weapons programme and fuel atomic power plants nationwide.

But even as India's appetite for uranium grows, UCIL had not raised workers' salaries since 2003, said union boss A.K. Jha.