Reminiscent of the British Rule, hundreds of policemen fired live ammunition at thousands of protesters demanding the closure of the Vedanta Sterlite Copper unit, which led to the death of 11 people. From Jallikattu to Sterlite, Tamil Nadu remains a fertile ground for dissent and protests, with truly astonishing support from youngsters who were earlier indifferent towards such matters.
Thousands of protesters gathered on May 22 to mark the 100th day of the agitation against Vedanta Pvt. Lim. The protest that day began around 8:30 AM and the protesters marched towards the collectorate. As the crowd neared the collectorate, they went on a rampage destroying vehicles on their way. The police initially used tear gas to disperse the mob, but to no avail. When the protesters regrouped and continued on their rioting, the cops resorted to using firearms. The shootout which ensued led to several unfortunate deaths.
The protesters were enraged at the brutal method adopted to disperse the crowd. The crowd stated that those who were killed in the firing had bullet injuries above their waist and that it was illegal for the police to shoot above the knee on such occasion. There were also several clips of footage by local media channels that support the protesters’ claims.
The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Edappadi K Palaniswami ordered an inquiry into the happenings that led to the violent turn of events. Meanwhile, compensation money was allocated to those who were martyred and injured during the shootout.
It is interesting to note that the factory was originally planned to be set up in Maharashtra. It was forced out of the state by protests over pollution and emission fears, after which Tamil Nadu was chosen as the final location, and the factory was commissioned in 1997. Following its establishment, there were several cases of distress to locals due to the release of unprocessed gases during the refinement of copper. There were also complaints that Vedanta Pvt. Ltd. failed to fulfill several conditions after its establishment, many of which had been promised beforehand. A study conducted by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute stated that the factory was producing products it wasn’t licensed to, which led to pollution of local groundwater by heavy metals like arsenic, lead, aluminium etc. However, the hazardous nature of the factory finally made headlines in 2013 when a sulphur dioxide leak, led to the death of a person. Following this, the then Chief Minister, J Jayalalitha ordered its closure, which was overturned by the National Green Tribunal, India’s apex environment court after an appeal made by Vedanta. Consequently on April 2, 2013, the Supreme Court delivered a severe indictment that was followed by a sentence that appeared to be in favor of the Sterlite factory. The court agreed with the allegations made by petitioners and the general public, but refused to shut down the company by arguing that the plant of the company contributed substantially to the copper production in India, that copper is an essential commodity used in multiple crucial sectors and that it also provided employment to a large number of employees and small scale traders based in the factory. However, the Court penalised the factory to pay an amount of 100 crore rupees to be given to the district magistrate as compensation for the difficulties faced by the people.
It was on hearing the news of the company announcing further expansion to an additional output of 1200 tonnes per day that the residents started protesting for the immediate closure of unit since February this year. The wave of opposition, and the intensity of the sentiment on display was not merely against Sterlite, but also against the agents of the state which include the district administration and TN Control Board (TNPCB) who have done the corporate giant’s bidding since the factory was set up. Thoothukudi is already a toxic hotspot with a high concentration of polluting and hazardous industries. It is quite likely that the city is already well beyond its environmental carrying capacity. Anecdotal reports from local people go as far as suggesting that Thoothukudi is rapidly becoming the cancer capital of Tamil Nadu.
The most surprising fact about this issue is that not every local endorses the permanent shutdown of the Sterlite plant. Several associations which includes the Chidambaram Port trust, Chemical Industries Association and Winding Wire Manufacturers Association claim that the closure of the plant would affect the livelihood of thousands of workers in allied industries and other small factories that depend on this plant for their business. The closure of this plant would serve as killer blow to the nation’s copper industry, as the Tuticorin plant manufacturers 4 lakh tonnes of copper per year, which amounts to 35% of India’s primary market. As India’s copper consumption has been rising steadily at the rate of 6-7%, India may turn into a net importer by March 2020, which would be a considerable setback to our economy.
It has been claimed that India as a developing nation should adopt ‘development first’ attitude where environmental quality comes only after basic needs. The above mentioned principle works on the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) hypothesis, according to which as countries become richer, they can afford to clean up pollution from the past.
On the other hand, environmentalists present their side of the argument by saying that environmentalism has moved from being an elite issue discussed in seminars and conferences, to becoming a real issue affecting people’s daily lives, health and livelihood. The ‘development first’ policy might have worked in the past when environmental degradation was relatively lesser. As time has passed by, all the effluents have accumulated in our surroundings to a point of saturation and the slightest further provocation of nature would lead to catastrophic effects. Environmentalists claim that no self-respecting government in today’s day and age can be seen as callous or insensitive on environmental issues.
And finally after a long wait, on May 28, the Tamil Nadu government ordered the permanent closure of Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi.
By Anishkumar S S