Tragic irony of Sterlite protests: Demonstrations in Tuticorin turned violent on 100th day, while plant wasn't even operational

The police firing on protestors campaigning against the Sterlite Industries' copper smelter plant in the southern port town of Thoothukudi in which 13 persons, including a woman and a teenage girl, died, is an outrage Tamil Nadu has not seen in its history.

An incident that comes close to what unfolded in Thoothukudi was when 17 people of a tea estate in Tirunelveli marched to the collectorate to demand wage revision were lathicharged. While fleeing from the police, many got into the Tamraparani river and drowned. In Thoothukudi, the unarmed campaigners were marching to the collectorate to press for the closure of the plant which they believe is polluting the air and ground water.

The plant in Thoothukudi has remained closed since 27 March as the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board rejected Vedanta's license to operate the smelter. Sterlite Industries has challenged it in the court. This is not the first time that the plant has been ordered to be shut. It remained shut for weeks in 2013 when the owners appealed to the National Green Tribunal against a similar shutdown order by the Madras High Court.

The locals have demanded permanent closure of the smelter unit, however, no immediate closure is in sight.

A file photo of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper unit in Tuticorin. PTI

A file photo of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper unit in Tuticorin. PTI

It happened on the 100th day of the protest. When it was peaceful all along, why did it turn violent on the 100th day — a question the police refuse to answer. They had announced their plan to lay siege at the collectorate. Why did not they not then make any preventive arrests? To prevent the protest march, the district administration clamped Section 144 in the town. Why did the police not take the protestors into custody en route which is the normal practice?

The crowd stoned the heavily-outnumbered police and set fire to police buses and vans as well as private vehicles. When the situation threatened to get out of hand, the police lathicharged the protesters and deployed tear gas. It was only after the violence spread to the collectorate that the police opened fire.

The events were seen by thousands on television channels. They also saw the police raining lathi blows on the agitators. Worse, the police gave no notice before opening fire. There was no district magistrate present on the scene. Who permitted the police to open fire? They did fire in the air. Thereafter, they took aims and shot to kill, a flagrant violation of police rules.

The Tamil Nadu government has ordered an official enquiry and entrusted the job to retired High Court judge Aruna Jagadeesan, a judge who exonerated the police in an encounter where armed robbers from Bihar were shot dead in cold-blood in a Chennai suburb a few years ago.

The larger question is why didn't the police use water cannons and when firing became inevitable, use pellets or rubber bullets? Even in Jammu and Kashmir, the para-military forces use only pellets on stone-throwing mobs. There has been a stoic silence from the Tamil Nadu police.

The tragic irony is that the copper plant is not in operation and waiting for clearance for its second unit. It is the construction activities going on in the plant for the expansion which triggered the latest agitation. Sterlite Industries, a subsidiary of the UK-based Vedanta group, has a dubious record on pollution. During its chequered operation in the last 20 years, there have been sulphur dioxide emissions and NEERI studies commissioned by the Supreme Court has found that there is presence of sulphur and other pollutants in the ground water, but within permissible limits.

In 2013, the Sterlite copper plant was fined by the Supreme Court after a gas leak. The apex court had also slammed the plant for operating without requisite permits for a considerable period of time. Sterlite however said it was fined for deviating from the NEERI norms and it had since taken remedial measures.

Twice before the Madras High Court ordered that the plant be shut down. The company in appeal found relief.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board also ordered shutdown in May 2013 on the ground that the plant had leaked toxic sulphur dioxide. Subsequently, the National Green Tribunal dismissed it as unfounded fears and allowed the plant to operate under expert guidance.

The bench observed Sterlite's unit is located an industrial complex and there are a number of other industries there, including thermal power units. "The TNPCB has not placed on record any determinative scientific data or reports to show that applicant industry (Sterlite) alone was responsible for the alleged emission of sulphur dioxide.

The Tamil Nadu Government's appeal against the green tribunal's order is pending in the Supreme Court which refused to grant stay on the ground that copper is meets the country’s defence needs. The court said it would be better to await the final order of the tribunal.

The company in its website has denied that the plant is emitting sulphur dioxide beyond permissible limits. It has also denied that it is discharge of effluents into the ocean and this is affecting marine life It has said effluents are recycled and there is zero discharge, a fact endorsed by NEERI in 2011. As for fears of incidence of cancer in Thoothukudi, it has cited statistics to show it is well below State average

The company has also denied that it is polluting ground water. It says water samples from the bore-wells/dug wells are being checked by Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board on monthly basis inside the plant premises and in the nearby villages. "If Sterlite Copper were polluting the groundwater, we would expect to see evidence of marker pollutants like copper, zinc and arsenic. The samples do not reveal the presence of these marker pollutants."

However, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board on 5 May told the appellate authority, hearing the plea of the company for reopening the plant, said the company misleading facts. It has said there is an alarming rise in number of persons being diagnosed with respiratory diseases due to atmospheric pollution.

It has said women in the villages surrounding the unit having inexplicably high incidence of menstrual disorders. There is fear of arsenic laced wastewater from Sterlite plant reportedly flooding tanks in the town.

The pollution control board has also reminded the Appellate Authority on how Vedanta and its subsidiary Konkola Copper mines are currently being sued in English courts by Zambian villagers for polluting their water and destroying their livelihood through their mining operations. In such a backdrop, the plant is planning to start a second unit when consent to operate its existing unit is pending before the authorities which led to the renewed agitation leading to police repression.


Updated Date: May 25, 2018 11:22 AM

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