At least 11 people were killed and scores of others including women and children injured in a brutal police attack and firing on people agitating against Sterlite Copper, a subsidiary of global mining conglomerate Vedanta, in the city of Thoothukudi, in Tamil Nadu, India. Official figures however maintained the death toll at 11. The firing happened on the 100th day of the protests, which saw the participation of nearly 1 lakh (100 thousand) protesters according to some estimates. D. Jayakumar, the state fisheries minister, called the firing “inevitable” while the chief minister announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh (around $15,000) to the deceased.
K. Kanagaraj, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who has been involved in the movement against the Sterlite Copper company, said the whole city had been taken over by the police who were using force to drive people away. Around 4,000 police personnel were deployed in the area. Prohibitory orders under sec.144 of CrPC were imposed to prevent people from assembling. The police used baton charges and teargas in various parts of the town against the protesters, chasing them into houses and lanes, and mercilessly beating even women and children. Videos that have surfaced on social media show policemen directly firing at the protesters and one even shows a policeman saying “At least kill one person!”
The protesters have two demands: the closure of the copper smelter plant of Sterlite in the region and a halt to the expansion plans of the plant to other regions in Thoothukudi.
Since the plant began operations in 1997, it has been accused of multiple environmental and human rights violations, causing massive health and livelihood problems to the residents of Thoothukodi. Sterlite Copper is the Indian copper-producing unit of Vedanta Ltd., a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, a mining and metals conglomerate founded by Anil Agarwal, whose current wealth is estimated to be $3.3 billion while the company’s wealth stands at $12.9 billion.
Protests against Sterlite Copper began from the time operations were initiated. The complaints raised against it have led to several shut-downs but all for short periods. The support the company has received from the State has allowed it continue its operations. In March 2013, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) identified a gas leakage in the plant, which led the Supreme Court to set up a monitoring committee to look into the allegations made. The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee found that the allegations were true and that the plant is massively polluting the environment and causing health hazards along with running the plant from the time it commenced operations by misrepresenting and suppressing material facts. (Read the report here) However, they decided to charge Vedanta with a fine of only Rs 100 crore citing the plant’s contribution to the cargo volume of Tuticorin port, and for generating a huge revenue to the Central and State governments despite the severity of their own findings. This amount too, is a pittance considering the revenue that Vedanta Ltd., generated smelting copper in India and Australia between 2000 and 2017 is $3.62 billion.
Copper production by smelting and refining is an industry which produces toxic byproducts like lead, arsenic and sulphur oxides that adversely impact soil, water and air quality. According to Vedanta itself, the plant at Thoothukudi has one of the lowest costs of production among smelting copper plants in the world, which raises the question as to whether there have been investments in operations to reduce emissions and take action to control the waste produced. P Ramnath, chief executive officer of Sterlite Copper, said after the expansion, the plant would be Asia’s largest copper manufacturing facility at a single location. In addition to the copper smelter plant, they run a phosphoric acid plant, a sulphuric acid plant, and a copper rod plant. All three of them contribute to the massive environment degradation of the surrounding regions. The establishment of the plant itself is in violation of a number of environmental laws as noted by the Supreme Court itself. The ‘Consent to Establish’ given to it by the TNPCB mandates the plant to be established more than 25 kms away from the eco-sensitive Gulf of Mannar. The plant, however, is established within 14 km of the Gulf that has led to depletion in the fish population of the area due to the toxic wastes, severely affecting the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen in the area. Further, the board also reduced the width of the mandatory green belt around Sterlite from 250 metres to a mere 10% of it at Vedanta’s request.
In 2006, researchers from Tirunelveli Medical College conducted an epidemiological study within a five-km radius of Sterlite Industries. A high prevalence of asthma, pharyngitis, sinusitis and other respiratory tract infections, all proxies for the presence of harmful gases and particulate irritants in the lower atmosphere where discovered. An unusually large number of menstrual disorders like menorrhagia and dysmenorrhea were found in women living in the area. This is in addition to the high levels of iron, cadmium, nickel and arsenic found in soil samples collected from near the plants, making the area unsuitable for agriculture.
In July 1997, 165 women in a neighboring factory — Ramesh Flowers - fainted as a result of a toxic gas leak from the plant. Some of these women later had miscarriages.
Professor Fathima Babu, representing Anti Killer Sterlite People’s Movement, explained to the media the severity of the issue. She said “Almost every house is affected by cancer. Children are most affected. Throat cancer has increased. Eye cancer has also gone up. All this is strange and shocking. We have taken the decision that this district can no longer tolerate this.” In September last year, the National Green Tribunal found that the Sterlite plant was responsible for dumping copper slag in the Upper Odai river and causing the blockade of the river stream. The judgment also revealed that the plant operated without authorisation under the Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008, between 2013 and 2017 and ordered to compensate the affected villagers for the pollution it had caused.
The recent wave of protests began as the plant is expanding to become a 800000 tonne per year smelter, almost doubling its current capacity. This expansion would bring in unprecedented health and environment hazards along with it to the residents of Thoothukudi and nearby districts. Over the years there have reportedly been 17 deaths and several injuries directly involving Sterlite Copper due to their non-compliance with any environment and workplace directives. With the callous attitude of the State government towards the issue, and the use of police machinery to clamp down on the protesters, the anger of those who live in the area has increased. Larger rallies and protests are being planned in order to demand the closure of the plant and the halt to any expansion plans in other regions.
The government needs to take the people’s side and ask Vedanta to halt production and adequately compensate the damages already done in order to avoid Thoothukudi turning into another Bhopal gas tragedy story. Vedanta is notorious for the crimes it has committed in the past. In Korba, Chattisgarh, at least 42 deaths were officially registered against Vedanta by a judicial inquiry for using sub-standard material for construction that led to the chimney collapsing in 2009. Tens of thousands of residents in Odisha (India), Punjab, Rajasthan and Zambia have been protesting for years against Vedanta’s crimes and corruptive practices in their areas.