On Thursday, Meghalaya woke up to the news of loss. Spelity Lyngdoh Langrin — the face of the decades-long anti-uranium mining movement in Meghalaya — had passed away at her home in Domiasiat area of South West Khasi Hills district the night before. She was 95.
While not many know of Langrin in the rest of India, she was considered an icon in Meghalaya for turning down a multi-crore offer from the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), a Public Sector enterprise that wanted to mine her land. “Money cannot buy me freedom,” Langrin had famously said, rejecting the offer.
Kong Spelity: The face of Meghalaya’s anti-uranium movement
In the early 1980s, Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD) — a government body which identifies and evaluates uranium resources in the country — began exploratory drilling in various uranium-rich villages of Meghalaya. “She lived in a land which has India’s largest deposits of uranium,” said Tarun Bhartiya, a Shillong-based filmmaker, who has met Langrin several times. “She initially allowed AMD to start prospecting — basically search for uranium deposits — when they reached her village in the early 1980s.”
Soon, however, Langrin started noticing the hazardous impact the activity caused around her. “[Impact] on the health of her family, on her cattle — most of which died,” said Bhartiya, “Since then, she made it clear that they [the mining company] were not welcome and asked them to leave.”
In the early 2000s, when the UCIL arrived looking for ways to lease land from the villagers (most of Meghalaya is under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and any commercial activity — like mining — requires consent of local tribal councils), Langrin refused point-blank. “Money cannot buy me freedom” she told them and went on to install signboards around her home that read: “Private Property”, “Do Not Trespass” etc.
“She was very courageous,” said ND Syiem, Langrin’s son-in-law, “She refused to surrender her land. She was the only daughter in her family.” Since the Khasis are a matrilineal society, Langrin was the owner of the land.
“Even around her, as UCIL managed to convince [other] villages, Kong Spelity remained resolute and held her ground,” said Bhartiya, “And that is how she became the face of Meghalaya’s anti-uranium movement.”📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
Meghalaya’s resistance to uranium mining
The country’s largest and richest uranium deposits are located in Domiasiat and Wahkyn areas of Meghalaya. As per the AMD website, “Exploration for atomic minerals in this part of the country began way back in the 1950’s; initially, in Meghalaya and later extended to other states of Northeast India.”
The Domiasiat uranium deposit, also known as “Kyelleng-Pyndengsohiong-Mawtahbah” region, was discovered in 1984 and has approximately 9.22 million tonnes of high-grade uranium ore deposits.
However, mining ambitions of the government have been met with stiff local resistance ever since the AMD arrived in the 1980s. The Khasi Students’ Union (KSU), Meghalaya’s influential student body, has been in the forefront of this opposition, citing environmental and health concerns.
“There was exploratory mining of uranium in the region in the 1990s but Spelity Lyngdoh Langrin, KSU, late Hopingstone Lyngdoh (MLA of Nongstoin) and the people of that area were able to stop it after seeing the impact first hand,” said Forwardman Nongrem, South West Khasi Hills District’s KSU president, “The KSU’s stance is simple: ‘no’ to uranium mining and exploratory drilling of uranium. We will not compromise on our position, come what may.”
Over the years there have been several attempts by the government to push exploratory mining in the state. In 2007, a private Kolkata company was given permission by the AMD to carry out exploratory drilling in the Nongjri region. However, in June 2011, the company was compelled to surrender its license. In 2009, UCIL had been granted 422 hectares of land in Mawthabah area. Again, stiff opposition led the government to revoke its decision in 2016.
“There is no uranium drilling or mining activity in the region now,” said KSU’s Nongrem, “The last drilling activity in Kyelleng-Pyndengsohiong-Mawtahbah was in the summer of 2018 but was stopped by the KSU.”
Last month, after a crack was noticed in one of the concrete uranium effluent tanks built by the AMD in 1993 in the Nongbah Jynrin area, and locals alleged that there was a leak, the Meghalaya government constituted an expert agency to probe it.
The legend of Kong Spelity
Over the years, Langrin’s name has become synonymous to the anti-uranium mining movement — her face often plastered over banners during anti-uranium protests in the state. “While the movement has a wide coalition of people (students’ groups, women’s groups), she is the undisputed face,” said Bhartiya, “It is also because of who she was: an old lady, a mother… who had the courage to refuse such an offer. It got people thinking, if she can do it, so can others.”
According to environmental economist Dr Bremley WB Lyngdoh, Langrin inspired an entire generation. “Without her pushing, there would be full scale mining right now; for her, land was the most precious. She did not want to sell her land and everyone to suffer in her name,” he said.
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Agnes Kharshiing, renowned social activist known for her battle against illegal coal mining in Meghalaya, described Langrin as a “legend.” “I admire her strength to protect her land. She lived a full life, and so should her children,” said Kharshiing, “I express my condolences to the bereaved family, and will stick by them to ensure that their land is always protected.”
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