22 May marked the 100th day of protests by the people of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) district, TN, against the Sterlite copper unit that has been an environmental and medical threat for over two decades now.
What was until then a peaceful protest of over 2.5 lakh civilians, erupted into violence, which ended with 11 civilians being gunned down by the police, and over 65 grievously injured in the melee.
Thoothukudi residents’ angst against Sterlite Corporation, as well as Sterlite’s repeated offences against government regulations, needs to be studied in some detail to understand the prevalent anti-government, anti-police and anti-corporation mood.
When Did Sterlite Enter Thoothukudi?
Sterlite Copper, a business unit of Vedanta Limited, set up the copper factory in 1998. Today, it puts out 1,200 tonnes per day and 400,000 tonnes per year.
It was to have been a complex with an output of 60,000 tonnes per annum, to be established in Ratnagiri, a coastal district in Maharashtra. Owing to mass agitations by the locals, rallied by the district collector of the district, construction was suspended in 1993, barely a year after the government had given the go-ahead.
It was after this that, in 1994, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) gave Sterlite the go-ahead (No Objection Certificate), to set up a copper smelting plant on two conditions;
1. The plant would be set back 25 kms away from the Gulf of Mannar.
2. The plant would be set up only after an urgent Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was conducted.
It must be noted that the TNPCB granted the no-objection certificate before the completion of the EIA. Also, the factory was set up 14 kms away from the Gulf of Mannar, in direct violation of the diktat.
Pollution, Gas Leaks, Violations
In 1998, for the first time, the Sterlite copper plant was shut down. Owing to an agitation by the people, who complained of burning eyes and sore throats, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) conducted an impact study and submitted the findings to the Madras High Court, which led to the shutting down of the plant.
Barely a week later, the plant re-opened. According to News Today, The Madras High Court asked NEERI to conduct another study and the plant was given a clean chit. This was less than 45 days after NEERI had indicted Sterlite on various grounds.
In a report by The News Minute, according to NEERI’s initial study, Sterlite had failed to develop a greenbelt; was producing products it was not authorised to; had contaminated the groundwater with arsenic, lead, selenium, aluminium and copper; may have tampered with the online air monitors; and had caused numerous gas leaks.
1999 saw the first major gas leak, which hospitalised 11 workers from the nearby All India Radio station. After continued complaints from the locals, an increase in incidence of cancer, and throat and eye irritation, a Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) visited Thoothukudi in 2004. It observed the violations and recommended to the Ministry of Environment and Forests deny the plant clearance to expand from 390 tonnes to 990 tonnes.
But on 23 September, a day after the SCMC submitted it’s report, the MoEF granted clearance for expansion. By this time, construction had already begun.
What Triggered the Protests?
In 2013, Sterlite gained notoriety when the Supreme Court ordered it to pay a fine of Rs 100 crore for causing widespread damage to the water and land in the area because of a gas leak. The Supreme Court also noted that the plant had been functioning for an extended period of time without proper licenses.
The massive gas leak had occurred on 23 March, and had allegedly caused sudden coughing, breathlessness, miscarriages and burning eyes in the early hours of the morning in Thoothukudi town. Meteorological data and wind speeds/direction pointed to Sterlite as the source of the leak. But the TNPCB was unable to prove this ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, and so the factory continued operations. It was after this that petitioners and the people approached the court.
The Supreme Court refused to shut down the plant, since it observed that it provided employment to over 1,300 people, and contributed greatly to the production of copper in India. The Rs 100 crore fine failed to act as an effective deterrent for Sterlite’s transgressions.
The plant soon expanded to 1,200 tonnes per day.
It was on hearing the news of a possible further expansion to an additional output of 1,200 tonnes per day that over 250 people went on a hunger strike on 11 February. The protesters were cleared by the police; the children were released, women were bailed out, and eight men arrested on charges of instigating the protest.
How the Protests Began and Grew
According to a report in The Hindu, based on official data, in 2015 alone, Tamil Nadu saw over 20,450 agitations and protests, the highest in the country. Dissatisfaction owing to a lack of basic amenities and heightened political awareness among the public are some of the reasons.
On 24 March 2018, over 10,000 people gathered in protest, seeking a halt to the expansion and the closure of Sterlite for good.
The protests were flagged by the residents of Kumarattiyapuram village, whose water bodies were contaminated by the plant.
On 26 March, Tamils in London protested outside the house of the CEO of Vedanta, the parent company of Sterlite.
By this time, over 12,000 shops had been shut down across the district to show solidarity and support for the protests. The number of people participating in the protests grew to over two lakh, and was spread across different villages in the district, centred around the Chidambaram Nagar bus stand in the district.
Speaking to The News Minute, police officials noted the peaceful manner in which the protests were going on, confirming that no protester had been detained.
On 22 May 2018, thousands of protestors marched towards the Collectorate, seeking a ban on Sterlite. Though the rally was announced 20 days earlier, the District Collector N Venkatesh had issued a prohibitory order under Section 144 in view of the protest, while granting permission for the protest only at the SAV ground near Thoothukudi old bus stand.
In spite of Section 144 being imposed in the area, the protesters rallied to the district Collectorate opposing the Sterlite Copper unit. As part of the protest, they had planned to gherao the Collector’s office as well as the Sterlite plant.
However, angered over not being allowed to take out their rally, the slogan-shouting protesters forcibly tried to push the security personnel away.
Over 4,000 police personnel were deployed to prevent the crowding, but it proved to be futile as protesters at various areas breached the barricades and marched towards the Collectorate.
Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy, in his statement, defended the use of arms stating;
20,000 people took out a rally towards Sterlite company and towards Collector’s office and some indulged in violence. They indulged in arson in the Collector’s office and pelted stones at the Collector’s office. To control the violence, police had no other option but to swing into action.Excerpt from a statement from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Edappadi Palaniswamy
Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami has announced compensation of Rs 10 lakh each for those killed during protests and Rs 3 lakh each for the injured and government jobs for the family members of the deceased. An inquiry commission will also be set up for investigation into the incident, he said.
Violence broke out once again on 23 May, as protestors and outsiders gathered near the government hospital claimed that the police once again opened fire. Initial reports suggest that one person is critical and two others sustained injuries.
Opposition, Celebrities Condemn Violence Against Public
The government of Tamil Nadu and the police force on the state are facing severe flack from the opposition parties, celebrities and the people themselves, who have all registered their anger on social media.
DMK’s working president MK Stalin, Kamal Haasan (Makkal Neethi Maiyam), Rajinikanth, and Vaiko (MDMK), who has conducted numerous anti-Sterlite protests, and a host of other celebrities and politicians have demanded an inquiry into the incident, and transparency on information regarding who ordered the firing.
With Thoothukudi still simmering after the agitations of 22 May and the post-mortem of the deceased still under way, hundreds of police officials, dressed in full riot gear, have been stationed outside the hospital. A bus was set ablaze by a group of protesters outside the hospital in Thoothukudi.
The police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. What has triggered further angst against the police was a video of the protest, in which police personnel are heard to say, “At least one must die,” while shooting at the public.
The Interim Order Against Sterlite’s Expansion
The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court has passed an interim order in connection with allegations of Sterlite operating a second unit in Thoothukudi by violating the Environmental Protection Act of 1986. The court, on Wednesday, 23 May, stayed any further expansion by the copper smelter.
The High Court also directed the Centre to hold a public hearing within four months before granting environment clearance to the Sterlite copper smelter plant. The decision on expansion, the court said, should be made by September 2018.
It ordered the Vedanta Group to send a fresh petition to the Centre for environmental clearance. On 18 May, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court reserved its orders on a public interest litigation petition filed against SIPCOT and Sterlite Industries for operating without an environmental clearance. A Division Bench of Justices M Sundar and Anita Sumanth reserved the orders in the case after listening to arguments from all sides.
This order from the High Court comes at a time when tensions are high in Thoothukudi after 13 people including a minor have been killed so far in clashes between police and demonstrators.
What Happens to Sterlite Now?
Sterlite is currently seeing the longest shutdown so far, of over 15 days. It had earlier shut down on 29 March for 15 days, citing ‘maintenance work’. According to an Indian Express report, Sterlite has since “put out advertisements in local dailies claiming that they have not violated any norms, in light of recent protests.”
Sterlite will remain shut until at least 6 June. Currently its power supply too has been cut off. According to the TNCB, this is because it has failed to comply with environmental rules.
But, environmental activist Nithyanand Jayaraman says the grounds under which the TNCB has asked for Sterlite’s shutdown, are flimsy.
So all the board had said was that you have dumped slag on the side of the river. Now if I remove the slag which has been dumped on the side of the river, I can apply for consent and I can get my consent. They say you haven’t submitted water monitoring results, now I have submitted it. You haven’t submitted air monitoring results now I have submitted it. That’s the end of the story.Nithyanand Jayaraman, Environmental Activist, in an interview to The Quint