Sterlite protest: AIADMK govt's indifference towards environmental concerns helped Opposition earn political mileage

Tamil Nadu boasts of being an industry-friendly state with its many centres of industrial activity. The state capital Chennai is dubbed as the Detroit of India and a host of new age entrepreneurs. Tiruppur is known for its cotton textile success. Kanjeepuram for its silks. Coimbatore, a bustling entrepreneurial city, is home to a number of successful small and medium industries. Namakkal for its trucking business. Sivakasi is known for fireworks. Not to forget the international chain of Chennai based Saravana Bhavan ‘pure’ vegetarian restaurants.

With its high literacy rate, a range of good quality educational institutions and a decent health care set up, Tamil Nadu has been an attractive destination for small, medium and large private investors. And that's despite the costs of setting up a business depending on which of the ruling Dravidian parties were in power at any given time.

 Sterlite protest: AIADMK govts indifference towards environmental concerns helped Opposition earn political mileage

Police personnel tackles agitators in Tuticorin. PTI

In her final term as Tamil Nadu chief minister, J Jayalalitha (also spelled as Jayalalithaa) was particularly keen to attract large private investments to Tamil Nadu. The state, fourth largest in the country and ranked second in industrialisation in some rankings, has been able to maintain a GDP growth of around 8 percent in recent years, higher than the national average.

But over the years, the political dispensation in Tamil Nadu has more often than not been unfriendly to labourers. Both the main Dravidian parties do have their labour wings, yet, strikes have been rare unless there were some specific political gains to be had by one or the other. Some years back, a strike by Hyundai workers was quickly quashed by the ruling party. In the latest incident, the police now ruthlessly fired on protestors in Thoothukudi, a major port and agriculture area dominated by the ruling AIADMK — the only MP and four of the six MLAs from the area belong to the AIADMK.

While politicians of all hues, from the state and the Centre, have been vocal in criticising the state government for its action, the AIADMK administration has refused to admit any culpability and hasn't said a word against the police, despite the videos circulating showing armed policemen in mufti firing at the protestors. Neither has any major industry body, state or national, openly condemned the killings.

The Sterlite copper smelting unit is nearly 20 years old and is today one of the country’s largest copper smelting plants. Jayalalitha got it going during her earlier regime. Subsequently, the company got environmental clearance from DMK under Karunanidhi, and in 2007 its expansion plans were approved by the Manmohan Singh government. In 2009, the Singh government, of which the DMK was a part, also gave the company the environment clearance. In 2013, the Supreme Court ordered the company, blamed for gas leakage leading to health issues among the people, to pay a fine of Rs 100 crore. The current protests were triggered by the company wanting to double the plant’s capacity.

Neither the protestors, nor the company has produced any scientific facts to bolster their respective claims. And despite the protests going on for quite some time now, the government too gave no information on the steps it had taken, as demanded by DMK leader MK Stalin.

The severity of the AIADMK govt response when protestors turned violent, is surprising, especially given the potential of the action to be taken advantage of by the TTV Dinakaran faction within the AIADMK, whose Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam launched a signature campaign against Sterlite.

Some media reports have also questioned the bona fides and political motives of little-known organisations like Pudhiya Podhu Udamai Iyakkam and Puratchikarar Ilaignar Munnani who were part of the protests. Inevitably, accusations have started flying about the RSS role in the firing and counter-accusations about a Congress leader’s connections with Sterlite.

Unlike elsewhere where protests against environmental degradation from industrial activity have led to the stoppage of operations, as happened with the bauxite mining plans in Niyamgiri hills in Odisha, rarely have such protests in Tamil Nadu been effective. In pre-internet times, protests against a multinational in Kodaikanal over the dumping of mercury in open areas and the resultant mercury poisoning of water sources, created no major impact, though the company shut down its operations there. Recent protests, however, gained some attention due to social and digital media, and the presence of NGOs among the protestors. The last major people’s agitation was against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. But after the initial enthusiasm of protestors, the plant is now up and running, peacefully.

In today's time, neither the government nor the industry can be indifferent to the environment. Big industries, particularly, multinationals, cannot afford it either. In fact, the anti-Vedanta protests were held recently in England and the US too. But Vedanta and Sterlite have already become sideshows in Thoothukudy. An interesting political fallout of the protests is the sudden descent of the Tamil film industry heroes into Thoothukudy in support of the protestors and families of those killed. The most prominent among them, of course, are actor-turned-politicians Kamal Haasan, who cancelled his trip to Bengaluru to attend HD Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony and be a part of the grand show of anti-BJP unity, and Rajinikanth.

The author is former Editor-in-Charge, The Week

Updated Date: May 24, 2018 08:45:04 IST