Being Tracked in a Tuticorin Gripped By Fear of Authorities
A reporter’s account of meeting people in Tuticorin who now live in fear of the cops, Sterlite and cancer.
(This article was originally published on 16 July 2018 and has been reposted on the anniversary of the shooting that took place in Thoothukudi during the anti-Sterlite protests.)
Look for a neem tree and Thayamma will be sitting under it, somewhere near Therku Veerapandiapuram.
Someone told me this, as a way to identify the person I need to talk to in a village in Tuticorin. I wondered how that vague detail would be enough to zero in on this person. As we entered the village, we stopped at a place where there were a few old men playing cards. We asked them if there were any people affected by Sterlite living in the village. Just then, a woman walks up to us, smiles and begins to walk away. I followed her and as we walked a few steps ahead, she plopped herself on the ground and continued her chit-chat with her friends. There it was, the neem tree, and she was Thayamma.
We sat under the tree talking about making sambhar, how Sterlite has ruined their lakes and ponds, why the summer is beating upon us even in July, how they live in fear of the police barging into their homes and how they are still scarred by the lathicharge and bullets from 22 May 2018.
Too busy to read? You can listen to the story right here.
Seething Anger Turns To Fear
I had visited Tuticorin two days after the firing to hear the wails and cries, but all rooted in burning rage. People were fuming over how the government chose the corporation over the people, over the heartlessness of the police and over the media spinning lies and taking sides, thus distorting the truth.
But what a sharp contrast two months can hold. Now, the people are crippled by fear.
In Veerapandiapuram, very close to the Sterlite plant, I was told to look for a Latha (name changed). I stopped at a provision store in a deserted street and there she was. With a broad grin and pushing a bottle of mango juice into my hand, she began her story. But she made me promise – “No camera!” She had been interviewed several times by TV channels and newspapers, but this was the first time she was scared.
Don’t record me. The police are tracking people they see in the media. If they see this interview, I will be in jail. You want me in handcuffs?Latha, Resident
They Are Watching You
I had to find untold stories as Tuticorin was a territory now accustomed to media glare. I decided to speak to the Sterlite workers to understand their side of the story.
A reporter gave me the contact of a person who would be able to put me in touch with the employees. I called him, gave him my details and he said he would check with the bosses and call me back in 10 minutes.
After an hour or so, I called back to check if I could do the (off-camera) interview that evening. The man sounded angrier this time and in a confrontational tone he said, “We know you are in Kumarareddypuram and Therku Veerapandiapuram villages and speaking to people about how Sterlite has caused pollution, cancer. If you’ve come to talk to them, why did you call us? Tell me your agenda.”
The ‘agenda’ didn’t irk me but the fact that he knew my location, whom I was talking to and what I was discussing, did.
How did they know?
My driver grinned.
Now you understand the fear the villagers are living in. The police, government and Sterlite are always watching. But they are blind to the chemicals in the drinking water, cancer reports and our wails. This is Tuticorin today.Mani (name changed), Driver
Cancer and a Bureaucracy Living in Denial
The shutting down of Vedanta’s Sterlite would cause a potential revenue loss of USD 210 million per month. But it has brought great relief for the people of Tuticorin.
Now that the copper plant is shut down, I am glad. Four people in my family living near the factory have died of cancer in the last two years. Now at least I won’t lose more of my family to these wretched chemicals.Amutha (name changed), Resident, Sankaraperi
I had to find out if these claims were true. When I reached the villages, I figured it wasn’t difficult to find patients. There were people who had committed suicide because they couldn’t understand and cope with the effects of cancer. Families drowned in debt and children rummaged for their asthma inhaler every few hours.
I don’t want to pinpoint a single company as there is a belt of factories around, but why has the state still not acted or done a survey to find the cause of these problems?
When I met police officials, politicians and government officers, they conveniently shifted the blame.
Sitting in Chennai, typing this story out, I could not help but wonder about whether Raji’s husband returned from jail, if Amutha got a daily-wage job to pay off her debt, and if my interviews had gotten anyone into trouble.
But beyond all these stories, the people of Tuticorin, in spite of being let down by the media several times, were kind enough to treat me with love. They gave me tender coconuts, a full course meal spread out on a banana leaf, took me on a ship to see the magnificent Tuticorin harbour and bought me the most delicious macaroons.
They constantly reassured me that, ‘Ethavadhu prachanai na sollu ma. Pathukalaam. Naanga irikkom la?’ (Don’t worry. If there is any trouble, let us know. We’ll take care of you.)
(The English translation does no justice to the possessively loving way in which they spoke.)
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