A puppet government in Tamil Nadu on its watch
oversaw the killing of 15 people in Thoothukudi by police firing. They were
part of a protest that has lasted over 100 days against Vedanta Corporation’s
Sterlite Copper plant. Located on the edge of the town, Sterlite is widely
believed by locals to have polluted the air and water in the area. There have
been numerous complaints over the years of respiratory and other diseases among
people living around the plant. Sterlite’s owner Vedanta is a minerals
multinational with a deplorable global record of human rights and environmental
violations. That in this battle between the people and an ethically compromised
giant corporation the guillotine of the state should fall on the people tells
how Tamil Nadu has slid down the slippery slope to moral bankruptcy.
Protests against Sterlite Copper go back more than 20 years. The latest round was sparked by the company decision to expand its capacity from 400,000 to 800,000 tonnes a year, making Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi the largest copper smelting complex in the world.
This is an inherently dirty business, especially with older inefficient plants. Chile, the world’s largest producer, is grappling with ways in which to bring down its production—deposits that China heavily banks on—as its leadership has admitted that the level of environment pollution is becoming unsustainable. Residents of smelter towns across the world regularly complain of respiratory and other illnesses. Copper plants need to be at sites far from human habitation, not inside municipal limits, as in Thoothukudi.
The approval for Sterlite’s expansion plan benefited from a creative interpretation of rules by the Modi government, as part of its measures to get industrial projects going. In December 2014, the environment ministry read the rules to allow companies like Sterlite, operating inside designated industrial zones, to expand operations without public consultation. By one stroke of the executive pen the Centre took away the people’s agency in Thoothukudi.
The order was struck down by the National Green Tribunal in 2016, but by then Sterlite had started work on its new facility. On May 24, a day after the police killings, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court ordered a stay on the expansion plans of Sterlite Copper. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has also since withdrawn its consent for the plant, making it inoperative for now.
Sterlite has a long history of flouting rules. Between 1997 and 2012 it operated without a renewal licence from the TNPCB, and violated at least 30 procedural and environmental norms. In September 2010 Madras High Court ordered its closure, a decision that the Supreme Court soon stayed and in 2014, reversed. In an astonishing judgment the court admitted suppression of facts and misrepresentation on the part of the company, agreed that it had committed large-scale violations and yet allowed it to remain operational. The court went into the importance and uses of copper for nation building, cited industries like automobile sector that need the metal, and said the larger public interested demanded the existence of Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi. It slapped the company with a headline-grabbing fine of ₹100 crore—which was less than 10 per cent of the company’s profit at that time. This amount went to the exchequer. The people of Thoothukudi and their concerns were not considered part of the “larger public interest”.
The conduct of the Tamil Nadu government and the administration in Thoothukudi has been exceptionally shameful. First, they allowed the protest to get out of hand, and then had to resort to firing at unarmed people. On the face of it, the police’s conduct points to violations of standing orders and police manuals. It is not clear how the order to open fire was issued, whether the police escalated their response (meeting with protestors, water cannons, tear gas, rubber pellets, etc.) in a calibrated manner. Chief Minister Edapaddi Palaniswami has backed the police action, and hinted that a larger conspiracy exists behind the movement. Helpful sections of the media have seen the hand of Maoists and Christian organisations. It is part of the tired playbook in action across India—blame the people, never the government or the giant corporation it is supporting. That people can be motivated to take to the streets for clean air and water, and the health of their children seems a concept too hard for governments to grasp.