On 22 May, as Thoothukodi (Tuticorin) reeled under violence unleashed on the streets by the police on anti-Sterlite protestors, at least 11 people were reported dead. Section 144 has been imposed in the city till 25 May as the locals relentlessly demand the closure of the Sterlite copper plant, citing adverse health effects.
The Quint spoke to Nityanand Jayaram, a Chennai-based social activist who has been involved in the Sterlite battle for the last 15 years.
The angst against the Sterlite plant has been there for almost 22 years now. So why is it that the agitation has snowballed into a massive protest now?
The main trigger for this is that the people have been asking for a shutdown of the factory for the longest time. Instead of shutting down the existing factory, the government gave them permission to build another 4,00,000 tonne per annum copper smelter, which is next to the existing smelter. So, now instead of one, they have to face a horrible thing twice the size.
This triggered protests in 2017 in July when the construction first began and that snowballed as the government started using heavy-handed measures, ignoring the people and not responding to their requests and supporting the company.
What is this new company and how did they get an approval for a new plant?
So, the new factory is being set up in an area that is separate from the existing industrial estate. Sterlite colluded with the government and made it seem as though the factory is coming inside a notified industrial estate in order to get exemption from public hearing. They went ahead and got an environmental clearance in collusion with the Ministry of Environment, the Pollution Control Board and State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT).
As the construction of the new factory started, the people pointed towards the legality. But the company had its way as it had got the clearances through unfair means.
In January, SIPCOT, which is the agency that promotes industrial parks in this area, held a public hearing to promote a new industrial park. That new industrial park has the Sterlite’s on-going construction within its boundaries.
This confirms the allegations that we have made about the proposed factory not being within a notified industrial area.
What are the problems that people are facing?
People are experiencing breathlessness, wheezing. And over the last 2-3 years, they have understood that it is also the cause of cancer. The colony near the Sterlite plant in Tuticorin has had more cases of cancer.
So, all this caused the matter to spill over and on 24 March there was a massive gathering of about 2,00,000 people and since then, protests started mushrooming in each of the villages. The protesters have been up in arms against the Sterlite plant for the last 100 days.
But the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board hasn’t renewed their licence. Why do you say that they colluded with the government and got clearances?
The Pollution Control Board did what it was doing a long time ago in terms of rejecting the company’s licence.
The rejection of the renewal of licence has been done on extremely flimsy grounds when there are much stronger grounds. By rejecting the license on flimsy grounds, they have tried to give the company a way to escape once the public anger has cooled a bit. The rejection of license was essentially a move to placate people and not an environmentally sound thought-out move.
The people have faced the company’s pollution for the last 22 years. What they are saying is that they want a permanent and immediate shutdown.
If it had been an environmentally sound, thought-out move, the company would have been given rejection notice on the grounds that are so strong that it wouldn’t be able to open again.
What do you mean by open again? How can the company use it in their favour and get clearances?
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. The people are not asking for a temporary retrieve from this company.
When did you last visit Tuticorin and what was the sentiment among the locals?
I visited Tuticorin 7 months ago and the thing is that the resentment in people runs very deep. This is what happens when anger is kept wrapped like a pressure cooker by a state, that not just ignores, but also threatens the locals.
When you go to Tuticorin, as you enter the railway station, you will start seeing Sterlite copper signs. There is a small part near collector’s office that is maintained by Sterlite copper. The company has also given money to the local police, the Assistant Superintendent of Police. It is a very cosy relationship with the government.
What about the Sterlite workers?
When you talk to people, they are very upset, the workers are very upset. Despite the fact that they get wages from the company, after the 24 March big strike, Sterlite tried to get its contract workers to come out in support of the company. They asked the contract workers to sign a petition stating that the company should be open because their jobs are at stake. The contract workers refused and went home.
How difficult does it become to fight the corporates?
It takes a lot of patience, thick skin and understanding different signs and strategies to fight corporates.
In protests, violence can be used – directly or by getting the state to do the job – what was done yesterday. Money can exchange hands and lies can be told. But the unfortunate bit is that we don’t have access to these three tools.
We can’t use violence, we can’t bribe and we can’t lie. So that makes the job difficult, but in doing this, one has to understand that this is a 22-year battle for the people of Tuticorin, I have personally been involved since 2003. So, it has been 15 years.
And how difficult is it to mobilise people in such cases?
People don’t require awareness, the awareness is required by the media. The people have been doing it for last 22 years, for the last 100 days it has been up there. But the national media in Delhi reacts when 10 people get killed.
You have to get people killed to get the attention of the media. The Kodaikanal issue has also been simmering for 15 years, but it took a viral rap to get their attention. So, the awareness needs to be there in all spaces and not just locals.