Tens of thousands of people of Thoothukudi district in Tamilnadu have come out on the streets demanding the closure of the Sterlite Copper plant functioning in their region. They have been continuously agitating for over two months and the agitation is spreading to many other areas in Thoothukudi and to many cities of Tamilnadu. People from all walks of life including fishermen, auto rickshaw unions, mini bus drivers, salt pan workers, tea stall vendors, small manufacturer's association, joined the agitation showing that there is widespread concern.
Agitation to shut down the Sterlite Copper plant
Sterlite Company produces copper in the range of 1200 tonne per day or 400,000 tonne per year. It is also manufacturing sulphuric acid and phosphoric acid. It is run by Sterlite Copper, a business unit of Vedanta Ltd, which is a subsidiary of London-based metals major Vedanta Resources Plc.
In 1992 Sterlite wanted to set up its operations in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. Due to massive opposition from the farmers of the region that this would pollute their environment and damage their crops, it was asked to stop its construction and move out of the state in 1993. Using corrupt means, Sterilite was successful in setting up its Copper unit in Thoothukudi district during the Jayalalitha regime. Violating all the environmental and pollution norms, the manufacturing unit was set up in Thoothukudi and it started its operations in 1996.
Right from the beginning and at various times during these years, people of the region agitated against the company and its pollution, but government authorities sided with the Sterlite capitalists and attacked the protesting people. During its operations, it has violated not only pollution control norms, but also the production capacity limits and the products it was permitted to manufacture. Many cases were filed in the courts. But the company managed to win judgments in its favour and continued its production. Using its money power it was able to get the necessary approvals and orders from all agencies of the Indian State. The Executive, Judiciary and other governmental agencies such as the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) worked hand-in-glove with the Sterlite monopoly, ignoring all the norms and rules and shamelessly supporting the company’s drive for maximum profits.
In 1994, the TNPCB issued a No Objection Certificate asking the company to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Considering the ecological sensitivity of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere reserve, the NOC carried a condition stipulating that the factory should be located 25 km from the Gulf of Mannar. However, the Ministry of Environment and Forests seems to have issued an Environmental Clearance in 1995 without even waiting for the EIA. The setback condition was violated, and the plant was built within 14 km of the Gulf of Mannar. In 1996, TNPCB issued the plant a licence to operate, ignoring the violation of its own licence condition on setback from the Gulf of Mannar. In 1998, acting under directions by the Madras High Court, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) submitted a study on Sterlite's pollution which established several environmental violations.
In 1998, the factory was closed for the first of many times by the Madras High Court. In what was to become a pattern, the factory remained closed only for a few days. Within a week the Court modified its judgement and asked NEERI to conduct yet another study! From then on it has been a bonanza for NEERI. Between 1999 and 2007, NEERI received Rs. 1.27 crores worth of contracts for various studies, all of which uniformly defended Sterlite's operations and underplayed its impact. All these amply demonstrate the collusion of various state agencies in justifying violations by Sterlite
Sterlite company has been contaminating the groundwater of the vicinity with arsenic, lead, iron, selenium, aluminium, copper, sulphur di oxide and acid gases resulting in widespread pollution of water and of air with toxic dust particles. The whole region has been contaminated and polluted by the irresponsible and profit thirsty Sterlite company. It is also too close to the ecologically sensitive region of the Gulf of Munnar, endangering the variety of fishes and other marine lives in the sea.
Since the beginning of its operations, many workers of the company and people in the vicinity have died and also fallen seriously ill due to accidents involving leak of poisonous gases from the factory. Besides, it has been reported that people of the region face significantly higher incidents of cancer and lung and breathing related diseases, abortions, disabilities, etc.
Under these circumstances, as if to add fuel to fire, Sterlite company has embarked on an expansion scheme even without approval from authorities.
Unable to tolerate further pollution of their land and ground water and further deterioration in health conditions, people of Thoothukudi have launched an indefinite agitation to close down the Sterlite company altogether. In response for a call for 24 hour strike in that region, on March 24th massive agitations took place in Thoothukudi and the entire city was closed down. Thousands of people converged and they demanded complete closure of the factory. This massive agitation was totally blocked out by the mass media of the big capitalists.
Following this many students from various colleges have joined this struggle demanding closure of the factory. Large number of people of the region are taking up various forms of struggle on daily basis such as blocking the highways, dharnas, demonstrations, etc. Agitations are also being held in Chennai and other cities and other districts of Tamilnadu. Trade unions, peasant organization and peoples’ organizations all over the state have extended their support to the just struggle of people of Thoothukudi. Many organizations and its activists from all over Tamilnadu are visiting Thoothukudi and supporting the people in protest. Many organisations including Tamizhaga Vivasayigal Sangam, took part in the agitation of the people held in front of the Thoothukudi collector’s office and extended support to the just demands of the people.
Support was also extended to this agitation by Indians abroad – in US, UK, Europe, Middle east, Singapore, etc. People held local meetings and protests in many cities of the above countries and demanded the immediate closure of polluting Sterlite factory.
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. 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.