Tamil Nadu is simmering after at least 13 people lost their lives in Thoothukudi, as the police opened fire on a crowd protesting against Sterlite Copper Smelter plant in Tuticorin. The Central government says that it will send paramilitary forces to control the riots in Thoothukudi – an industrial city also known by its British name Tuticorin, but the ground reality in the south Indian state remains different.
When Newsclickcontacted local citizens, they shared their own version of the story. However, none of them was willing to be identified.
“We are suffering cancer, ground water contamination, soil contamination because of the Sterlite Unit-1. The unit owned by Anil Agrawal of Vedanta had entered Tamil Nadu after various states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala refused to entertain their factory. The proprietors bribed the officers of the Tamil Nadu government and opened their unit here. The factory increased their capacity many times than the permitted capacity. Sulphuric and phosphoric acid wastes, which are extremely dangerous to any life forms, are the actual residues from this factory,” said one of them on condition of anonymity.
Series of accidents have been reported from 1996 ever since the factory became operational: seven cylinders exploded in 1997, one person killed in explosion of high pressure valve, molten copper slag exploded in which three died, sulphuric acid burst killed five engineers and one worker.
Another person went to the extent of alleging that Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and his team have received Rs 1,000 crore as bribe money from the Vedanta group.
“Hence, an ultimatum was given and Section 144 was imposed on the common residents who were peacefully protesting for the past 100 days without any single incident of violence. Assault rifles and snipers were brought in with an assignment to kill a list of leaders whom the police had identified for their secret operation. The sniper, which can easily cover a range of 1,300 m was used by a medalist shooter from the top of Vajra Van (riot control vehicle). The shooters identified people in the list by their clothes and accomplished the task. We are able to receive photos circulated on the social media wherein the shooters had taken a group photo from the district collector, which proves their conspiracy,” alleged another protester.
The protest against the plant was going on for the past 100 days. “We had around 30,000 people at the protest. We wanted to meet the collector to register our grievances. Some of us turned violent after the police tried to stop us from marching towards the collectorate. It was natural because our grievances are related to our existence. Thousands of women and children were present with us. The police fired at us above the waist. A 17-year-old girl, who was an active protester and a 70-year-old reverend father were shot dead. These two killings clearly show that the targets were heterogeneous. How come ‘miscreants’ be present from heterogeneous background is our question,” said a third protester.
The police are now allegedly raiding homes in Annanagar and are indiscriminately picking youth to assault them. These raids take place in the wee hours.
“Many political leaders who came to visit us like DMK Acting General Secretary Mr Stalin, CPM leader Mr Balakrishnan, Actor Kamal Hassan, VCK leader Mr Thol Thirumavalavan and Congress party’s state chief Mr Thirunavaukarasu have been booked for violating Section 144. The leaders only came to visit us in the hospitals,” informed one more protester.
The only political party, which is apparently supporting the ruling AIDMK is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The state BJP leaders have given objectionable comments instead of condemning the police action.
“It is clear for us to understand what is happening at the decision makers’table and what their priority is. They will bear the brunt in the forthcoming elections in 2019 and we will take all efforts to remove the hostile state government even before that,” one of them said.
Meanwhile, as anger and resentment against the police action continued to smoulder, the Tamil Nadu government ordered several measures to control the unrest. Internet services were suspended in Thoothukudi and neighbouring districts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari.
One-person inquiry commission headed by retired high court judge Aruna Jagadeesan has been set up to probe the incident but the commission has not been given a deadline.
District Collector N. Venkatesh and Superintendent of Police P. Mahendran were transferred. Venkatesh was replaced by his Tirunelveli counterpart Sandeep Nanduri, while Mahendran made way for Nilgiris district police chief Murali Rambha.
The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court has ordered Vedanta group, which owns Sterlite, to stop construction of the second unit. The National Human Rights Commission has also sent notices to Tamil Nadu’s chief secretary and director general of police (DGP) to submit a report within two weeks. The union home ministry has asked the Tamil Nadu government to give it details about the violence.
The plant, one of India’s largest such facilities, has had a troubled history since it began operations in 1996. People have blamed it for their failing health and a major gas leak in 2013 led the Supreme Court to impose a Rs 100- crore fine. The plant has been closed down repeatedly in the past two decade, the last time by the Madras high court in 2013 over similar pollution concerns.