Sterlite Plant Fuels Cancer, Say Residents But No State Report Yet
Near the Sterlite plant in Tuticorin, there are cancer patients on every street and the water table is polluted.
Video Editor: Mohd Irshad Alam, Vishal
Cameraperson: Smitha TK
(This article was originally published on 24 July 2018 and has been reposted on the anniversary of the shooting that took place in Thoothukudi during the anti-Sterlite protests.)
Tuesday, 22 May was a dark day for the people of Tuticorin. It was supposed to mark the 100th day of their fight against corporate behemoth Sterlite. But their voices were silenced when things took an ugly turn. Bullets were fired by the police and at least 13 fell limp to the ground. Over 200 are still healing from the wounds.
But the bullet wounds only fired them up more. People are adamant more than ever that they do not want Sterlite near their homes anymore. They say they do not want to lose any more lives to its toxic grip.
Two months after the incident, The Quint visited villages in and around the Sterlite plant to verify these claims and understand the gravity of the situation.
The Spread of Cancer
Four months ago, 60-year-old Geetha’s (name changed) sister killed herself. But she is not moping. Why? Let us go back 10 years.
It all began when she experienced severe abdominal pain and had to be rushed to the hospital. The doctors had to remove her uterus after they detected a malignant tumour. With a lot of medication, she regained her health but in a few years, cancer struck again. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. This time, she was adamant she didn’t want to spend her days in a hospital.
She came back home and Geetha left no stone unturned to continue her treatment. But unable to bear the pain, she jumped into a well and ended her life.
She was hurt twice. She couldn’t bear the pain. She couldn’t sleep, or do anything.Geetha, Resident, Pandarampatti
Finding cancer patients wasn’t too difficult. Every street in Veerapandiapuram, Kumareddiyapuram, Pandarampatti, Sankaraperi and Silverpuram had an ailing patient.
Thirty-year-old Murugesan is still reeling from losing his best friend. He says at least 20 people have died of cancer in his village Sankaraperi. “He was a healthy man; he suddenly became thin and was finding it difficult to even breathe. They took him to Tuticorin Government Hospital, Tirunelveli, Madras, Kerala and Madurai. But he couldn’t be saved. He died a sorry death,” Murugesan said.
He didn’t have any bad habits, yet he contracted cancer. So was it his fault?Murugesan, Resident, Sankaraperi
Residents allege that the toxic fumes let out by the Sterlite plant are the cause.
I used to sleep on the terrace every day and we live close to Sterlite. The factory lets out the smoke at around 2 or 3 am. We can easily sense it in the air.Poomathi, Resident, Pandarampatti
However, Sterlite has cleared the air stating that “it is baseless to say Sterlite’s operations can cause cancer.”
“There are multiple sources of SO2 pollution in Thoothukudi. In addition to SO2 pollution generated by vehicles, the city is also home to six power plants, which generate 4000 MW of power. Of this, Sterlite only generates 160 MW of power. Sterlite’s SO2 emissions, which are within the prescribed norms, constitute only 2.6 percent of the total industry based emissions in Thoothukudi,” states the company website.
However, a study by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) has found that the company had tampered with the online air monitors and caused gas leaks that harmed people in Ramesh Flowers and the TNEB office.
Clean Water – A Luxury
A trolley with colourful drums is parked outside almost every home. And when the clock strikes 11 in the morning, all the women step out of their houses with the trolleys and gather at the centre of the village. That is when the water tanker arrives.
The water table in the area has not been very rich for decades now, but villagers say, since the increase in number of factories in the area, groundwater levels have dipped abysmally. They could use the water pumped through their borewells only for bathing and even that would make their skin itch.
The water would look yellow. If we cooked rice in that water even the rice would turn yellow.Thayamma, Resident, Kumareddiyapuram
They spend about Rs 1,000-2,000 for water per family every month.
But Sterlite has brushed aside these allegations as well, saying they are a ‘Zero Liquid Discharge plant’ since its inception in 1995.
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. It can thus be concluded that Sterlite’s operation is not polluting the groundwater.Sterlite Co.
Nityanand Jayaraman, an activist who was part of the committee that visited the plant to confirm the Zero Liquid Discharge nature of Sterlite’s operations, believes the permission to set up the factory should not have been sanctioned in the first place.
This is a large red category hazardous industry and ought to be set in a place that is away from residential areas. But this was set up in close proximity to densely populated neighbourhoods.Nityanand Jayaraman, Activist
He said that it was unfair for the government to “not only allow the company to operate, but also expand ten-fold despite several violations.”
Why Blame Only Sterlite?
What was puzzling is that these villages are bordered by a belt of factories, including several power plants, but they pin down the blame only on Sterlite.
Their reasons weren’t quite convincing.
“Because the factory is the closest to where we live.”
“Because everyone says so.”
Sterlite would send a medical bus regularly and do check-ups and give free medicines. They are doing this only because their factory has harmed people, right? No other company is doing this. So we think Sterlite is responsible.Murugesan, Resident, Sankaraperi
When we spoke to activists, they too said that Sterlite is the biggest offender of them all.
“We have gone through a filtering process to find the companies that let out carcinogenic components. Yes, there are many factories around the area. So, probably, one company is polluting the air and another is contaminating the water,” said Fathima Babu, an activist who has been leading the fight against Sterlite.
But it is this one company that lets out carcinogenic components in large quantities, that is polluting the air, water and land.Fathima Babu, Activist, Tuticorin
What Has Local Administration Done?
When The Quint visited the villages, we couldn’t find any visible effluents. The villagers said that the district administration and corporates had cleaned it all up after the 22 May incident, since the area was swarming with press cameras.
But they did give due credit to the officials for installing new water pump systems and ensuring to send water lorries regularly to areas where there was a scarcity.
“We have already formed a committee to assess the drinking water and other requirements. We will work on a fast-track mode and, on priority basis, provide infrastructure in and around these localities. This would cover almost 15 villages,” said Sandeep Nanduri, Tuticorin Collector.
The collector also assured that he would conduct a health screening and provide
Why No Survey Conducted?
What is baffling is why there has been no state-initiated study to find out what is causing the ailments?
If the NEERI report found that the Sterlite factory’s emissions were way over the permissible limits, why were checks not conducted?
Why are there no reports released by the hospitals to show the number of cancer and respiratory disorder cases caused by inhaling toxic fumes?
It has been a decade now. How much longer before the residents get an answer? Edappadi Palanisami, please answer.
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