Demanding the closure of Sterlite’s copper smelter in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, which is a part of Vedanta Limited group, villagers from Kumarattiyapuram village have been leading an indefinite dharna (protest) since February 14 this year. The protest got intensified on the 40th day when more than 15,000 people gathered for a public meeting in Thoothukudi, on March 24, extending their support to the ongoing agitation. Meanwhile, on the same day, a number of Tamil people held a protest outside the home of Vedanta Group chief Anil Agarwal in London, in solidarity with the protesters in Tamil Nadu.
The protest in London was organised by Foil Vedanta, Tamil People in UK and Parai - Voice of Freedom.
Reportedly, alleged gas leaks and bad effluent management by the copper smelting plant has been causing severe health problems to the residents surrounding the plant. Since the plant began its operations in 1996, it had been facing numerous public complaints on a wide range of environmental issues – causing hardships to livelihood in the region.
“There are 50 trade associations here in Thoothukudi. We all had extended one-day support. We will not allow the plant expansion to happen. Sterlite has already eaten our health and wealth,” said M. Krishnamoorthy, one among the coordinators of the massive public gathering on March 24.
Five years back in March 2013, The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) accused the plant of a gas leakage, following which the Supreme Court imposed a fine of Rs 100 Crore on the plant and banned its operations for a considerable period of time. Although occasional resistance against the plant has been taking place over years, the latest agitation drew public anger as the plant began its expansion.
It has been reported that the Vedanta group issued a statement claiming that the Sterlite plant had obtained necessary clearances for the expansion of the plant. The group is said to have begun the construction of a new 4 million tonne/year smelter on the edge of Thoothukudi town, almost doubling its existing capacity.
Professor Fathima Babu, representing Anti Killer Sterlite People’s Movement, explained media on 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 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.
While the AIADMK-led state government has remained silent over the growing protests, opposition party DMK’s leader Stalin and actor turned politician Kamal Hasan demanded the government to act in people’s interest.
Vedanta’s Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) in Zambia is also facing similar accusations of causing environmental damage including contamination of the river Kafue and emission of toxic fumes into the air since 2004.