Sterlite protests in Thoothukudi: Tamil Nadu CM Palaniswami to visit those injured in police firing, on Saturday

Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami will visit Thoothukudi on 9 June, and meet those injured during the anti-Sterlite protest, as well as the families of those shot dead by the police during the protest. Tensions were rife after 13 people were killed on 22 May, when the police opened fire at a protest rally demanding the closure of the Sterlite unit in the town. The rally was led by Tamil Opposition party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

Party leader MK Stalin was evicted from the secretariat premises in Chennai and detained by police personnel, after he staged a dharna outside the chief minister's office, demanding a meeting with him about the incident. Palaniswami's visit comes as an effort to ease pressure in Tamil Nadu's Pearl City, which is responsible for 70 percent of the state's salt production.

 Sterlite protests in Thoothukudi: Tamil Nadu CM Palaniswami to visit those injured in police firing, on Saturday

Police personnel baton charge at a protestor demanding the closure of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper unit in Thoothukudi. PTI

The National Herald reported that Sterlite Copper has been a source of controversy since 1996. Since its conception, the Vedanta Group-owned unit has faced the wrath of locals for polluting the area. Incidentally, the copper smelter complex was shifted to Thoothukudi from Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, after another public protest.

Problems arose in Thoothukudi when Sterlite announced plans to develop a second plant there. Since February, the villagers of Kumarettiyapuram have been protesting, demanding that the expansion plan be stopped and the first plant be closed. Environmentalists and locals both claim that emissions from the plant, one of the country’s biggest, are polluting the air and water in the district, which is in turn affecting people’s health. The plant has remained closed since 27 March  when it began a 15-day maintenance shutdown.

According to a report from The Wire, tens of thousands of protesters had gathered near VVT signal in Thoothukudi on the morning of 22 May for a peaceful rally towards the collectorate. While the rally had been announced at least 20 days prior, District Collector N Venkatesh had issued an order imposing section 144 (unlawful assembly) the previous day.

The police fired teargas at the protesters when they defied the ban, resulting in a clash between the police and protesters. When the rally reached the collector’s office, the police opened fire twice, killing 13 people and injuring more than 50, according to News18. Sources say the police opened fire again at Threspuram, a fisher village, whose residents were spearheading protests in the evening.

Palaniswami took to Twitter on 24 May to respond to the Sterlite protest, saying that the police firing was not a planned move, and was carried out for self-defence. According to The New Indian Express, he said that the police arrested only those who indulged in violence based on evidence such as a photograph, and not the general public. The chief minister also said that several opposition parties were holding protests, and the ruling AIADMK too had launched agitations when it was in the opposition. He rejected the opposition's claim that the government was portraying people who protested against Sterlite as anti-social. The National Herald reported that Tamil Nadu DGP TK Rajendran supported this claim in a statement, and said that the police concluded that the "mob was anti-social and the violence unleashed by them necessitated shooting."


However, sources have contested Palaniswami's claim. Namely, Henry Tiphagne, Executive Director of People’s Watch, who was present at the protest.  “It was indiscriminate and random. There was no warning from the police that they were going to open fire,” he told The Wire. “The protest, which was at first peaceful and included a diverse gathering including persons with disabilities and transgender persons, soon turned violent as a result of the police shooting at the Collectorate. As soon as people found out that fellow protesters were shot dead by the police and several others were left injured, they resorted to violence. The protesters began to target their violence towards the Sterlite Housing Quarters, which was located right beside the Collectorate.”

Sources have also suggested that the police operated out of vested interests in the Vedanta Group. “It is pre-planned, cold-blooded murder,” said TVK leader T Velmurugan, thus also contradicting Palaniswami's statement. “The police obviously want to quell the protests. We have reasons to believe that they have been bought over by Sterlite,” he told The Wire.

A report from IANS said that Vedanta is infamous for its environmental law violations. From 2000 to 2010, alumina and bauxite mining operations in Odisha sparked widespread protests, and cemented Vedanta's reputation as an egregious polluter and offender of tribal and human rights, the news portal said.

During this 10-year-period, The Wire said, it had also given political contributions to the Congress and BJP — donations that were held to be in violation of India's Foreign Contribution Regulation Act by the Delhi High Court. Another report from The New Indian Express said that company founder Anil Agarwal is a supporter of the BJP, often goes out of his way to welcome projects launched by the government  including associating itself with the 'Swachh Bharat' campaign with a group company helping to build 30,000 toilets. However, no real evidence on Sterlite's political ties has been found.

Following the incident, The Economic Times reported that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has demanded that the Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi be shut down "in larger public interest", and ordered a Crime Branch-CID probe into the violence during the anti-Sterlite protest and police firing. The probe was transferred from local police to the CB-CID police on 26 May, a senior official told PTI. According to The Times of India, the Madras High Court in a hearing on 23 May, ordered a halt in the expansion works at the plant and ordered a public hearing of the matter.

The chief minister  announced Rs 10 lakh as compensation to the kin of those killed in police firing. While those seriously injured will get Rs three lakh, people with minor injuries will get Rs one lakh. Palaniswami has also promised government jobs to one member of the families of those killed in the firing.

Updated Date: Jun 07, 2018 12:47:15 IST