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Elections 2019: Sterlite Killings Set to Haunt BJP-AIADMK in Thoothukudi

The killing of 13 people in police firing on an anti-Sterlite march on May 22, 2018 is set to become an issue in the TN constituency from where DMK’s Kanimozhi is making her electoral debut.
Sterlite Copper: Thousands gather to protest brutal killings

Chennai: Two prominent women faces of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are pitted against each other in the Thoothukudi Lok Sabha constituency in Tamil Nadu – Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha MP and daughter of late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, and BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan.

The constituency came into existence after the delimitation process in 2008 from the erstwhile Tiruchendur Lok Sabha constituency. In 2009, DMK had won the seat, while the AIADMK tasted victory in 2014.

However, this time round the whole state is keenly watching this contest as Thoothukudi has become a talking point after the Sterlite issue.

Anti-Sterlite Protest and Police Firing

The formation of the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamilnadu (SIPCOT) paved the way for massive industrialisation in the district. This was facilitated by the establishment of V.O. Chidambaranar Port as a major sea port in the area.

The Sterlite copper plant, owned by the Vedanta group, started functioning from 1996 after being denied permission to operate in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra in 1993. The speed at which the permission was granted for the smelter plant by the state administration, Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and the Ministry of Environment and Forests, had raised many eyebrows. Environmentalists alleged that the No Objection Certificate was issued without considering its impact on the Gulf of Mannar Coast, which is very close to the project site.

Also Read: Madras High Court Stays Re-opening of Sterlite Thoothukudi Plant

Ever since the Sterlite copper smelter plant started functioning, protests erupted against the massive discharge of effluents and continuous gas leak from the plant. The gas leakage had affected the workers of Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) and a dry flower manufacturing unit in 1997 itself. The year 1999 saw the staff of All India Radio suffering from breathing problems. Subsequent years witnessed the contamination of ground water by effluent discharges, including arsenic, cadmium, nickel and sulphates. These discharges have reportedly severely polluted the air, soil and water for several tens of kilometres around the plant. Several tests have revealed that the discharge levels were more than three times of the threshold levels. Meanwhile, reports suggested that respiratory and cancer-related diseases increased among city residents.

After years of suffering, the affected people held demonstrations and protests against the permission granted for establishment of an additional copper smelter plant. A massive march towards the District Collector’s office to mark the 100th day of the protest on May 22nd of 2018 turned fateful for 13 people when police opened fire.

The post-mortem reports have brought out disturbing facts about the shooting from short rangers that had pierced through the heads and bodies of the deceased. The police had reportedly used Self Loading Rifles (SLR) to open fire. The public alleged that they were harassed and threatened by plain-clothed policemen. Several villages were totally cut-off for almost a week after the firing took place. The way in which the protest was handled by both the Central and state governments, created severe apprehensions among the people of Thoothukudi.

The Case of ‘Missing’ Environmentalist

Chennai-based environmentalist S. Mugilan has been missing since February 15, 2019, the day he released proof on the role of senior police officers in the Thoothukudi firing incident, in a press conference. He reportedly left for Madurai from Chennai by train, but his whereabouts are still unknown. Several activists have raised concerns about his safety. The case was handed over to CBI-CID following the intervention of court and the police have released posters seeking information about Mugilan from the general public. Amnesty India has also called for a detailed investigation on his disappearance.

Also Read: No Trace of Environmentalist S. Mugilan, Activists Allege Police Involvement

Most Polluted City in TN

Thoothukudi has the dubious distinction of being the only city from TN to figure in the list of 100 cities that have high air pollution due to particulate matter 10, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in the country. The list was released by Environment Ministry in 2018. The air has high presence of polluting materials beyond the permissible levels, which is attributed to the fact that the city houses government and private-owned thermal power stations that use coal. Even, the Sterlite C opper went on to claim that the air pollution is high due to emissions from the state-run Tuticorin Thermal Power Station (TTPS).

Impact on Fishing and Salt Pan Industries

Thoothukudi is also known as ‘Pearl City’ since pearl fishing was done on a large scale. In recent times, fishing has become a source of living due its 163 km long coastline. Around 23 villages are engaged in fishing. However, industrial effluents and ash disposal from the thermal power stations have ruined the prospects of fishing as well as salt manufacturing plants.

Additionally, unseasonal rain and decreasing underwater tables have affected the salt manufacturing industry. Thoothukudi is the second largest salt producer in the country. The workers of this industry are also affected by soaring temperatures and severe stress. Most of them are seasonal and contractual workers without any social security and benefits. With the construction industry eating up spaces used for salt harvesting, agricultural lands face the threat of being used for salt harvesting.

The Anti-Incumbency Factor

The constituency, in spite of being an industrial hub, still suffers from rampant unemployment. The numerous industries are only keen on hiring contract and casual labour. With the Sterlite issue, people’s anger has grown. Reportedly, some BJP leaders were found justifying the shootings stating that ‘anti-national’ elements had taken over the protest. In all probability, this anger may turn against the ruling parties – AIADMK-BJP combine -- in favour Kanimozhi, who is making her electoral debut and is said to have set her eyes on the constituency a couple of years ago.

Read More: Madras HC: “How Brazen and Insensitive Can the State be?”

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