The first anniversary of police firing on protestors against the Sterlite copper plant in Tuticorin, in which 13 people were killed, scores of others wounded and hundreds arrested was observed on May 22nd. Families of victims of the police firing, protestors who demanded the closure of the plant, and people living in the vicinity of the plant are extremely upset and angry over the continued denial of justice.
Last year 20,000 people protested, over 100 days, against the expansion of the Sterlite Copper plant, one of India’s largest copper producers. The company is controlled by Vedanta Ltd, a majority-owned subsidiary of the London-based metals and mining company Vedanta Resources. It planned to double the capacity of its smelters, from its current 400,000 metric tonnes of annual copper production. This sparked outrage among the people of Thoothukudi. They said the existing smelters had contaminated their air and water, causing a range of ailments, from respiratory disorders to cancer (See Box).
On May 22, 2018, after some of the protesters gathered outside the district collector’s office, a plainclothes officer opened fire, killing 13 people. The incident was one of the environmental protests, which met with the most violent state oppression in India in a decade.
Rights and environmental activists have pointed out Sterlite has violated the law on multiple counts, and unless the environment of Thoothukudi is restored to its original quality, there is no question of continuing with a polluting factory. Others have pointed out that regulatory agencies and authorities must recognise that payment of a penalty by the company for its crime or payment of compensation by the state for victims of state violence cannot absolve them of their guilt.
A Madurai-based human rights organisation People’s Watch, in its report ‘A Year After Thoothukudi Burned’ released this May, criticises the failure of the National Human Rights Commission for dropping its inquiry citing “adequate compensation” was paid to victims. Highlighting that the state has reduced the parameters of justice to just compensation and jobs, the report says no family of the victims was provided post-trauma counselling, and most jobs given were that of a thalayari (village assistant), for which they were over-qualified.
Rights activists also released an inquest report in July last year incriminating the district administration for its role in the avoidable loss of lives.
People have been demanding that those responsible for the firing at the highest levels should be punished. Families of victims of the firing and those injured need to be adequately compensated and economically rehabilitated. Workers and others dependent on the copper smelter, whose families have been severely affected by the closure, should be provided alternate avenues of livelihood without any loss of benefits or income. Harassment of rights activists and protestors should immediately stop. The environment and groundwater resources have to be restored to their original unpolluted state.
The Indian State is least concerned about the well-being of its people. It has defended the unbridled exploitation of the land, rivers, ground water and other resources of the people by profit-hungry monopolies. The denial of justice to the affected people in Tuticorin once again proves that the agencies of the state such as pollution control boards, licensing authorities, judiciary and bourgeois political parties work for the interests of monopolies while claiming to be “regulators” and “protectors”. People cannot have faith in these agencies.
Sterlite’s murky history
Sterlite’s copper smelter in Thoothukudi has been mired in controversies ever since its foundation stone was laid in 1994. Environmentalists opposed it since the smelter was close (14 km) to the eco-sensitive Gulf of Mannar and did not maintain the 25 km distance mandated by environmental laws.
In November 1998, a report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), commissioned by the Madras High Court, found that gas leaks from the plant caused ailments among local residents. Chemicals released in the plant—including arsenic, lead, and selenium—contaminated groundwater. The plant was shut, but only briefly. The next year, the government gave it permission to double its production to 70,000 tonnes per year!
In 2008, a study by the Tirunelveli Medical College highlighted how iron content in the groundwater near the plant was 17 to 20 times higher than permissible levels. This could result in joint and abdominal pains. Respiratory diseases were 13.9 percent more prevalent around the factory. Cases of asthmatic bronchitis was at 2.8 percent, higher than the state’s average of 1.29 percent.
In September 2010, the High Court ordered its closure for violation of environmental norms, which was stayed by the Supreme Court. In April 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the High Court directive, and imposed a fine of ₹100 crore on the company for flouting green norms. The company had seen about 27 industrial accidents and gas leaks between 1997 and 2013.
In February 2018, a fresh round of protests by people erupted when the company wanted to double its production capacity, culminating in the police firing and the closure of the plant.