The residents in Tamil Nadu's Thoothukudi have been protesting against Sterlite Copper- the industrial plant owned by Vedanta group that has been operating in the area since 1996 - demanding not renewing the company’s license and the closure of its new unit.
According to Chief Minister K Palaniswami on Tuesday, on the 100thday of the protests, 11 people were killed and 20 critically injured in the police firing against the march in which about 20, 000 people took part. The incident has pushed the entire state into chaos. As per unofficial reports, 2, 500 police personnel have been deployed to deal with about 50, 000 protestors. However, the official statement says that though baton charge and other measures were employed when the violent mob barged into the District government headquarters violating the curfew and engaging in vandalism including torching the police vehicles, the police resorted to firing only when all such attempts went futile. The unfortunate incidents that took place on Tuesday continued into Wednesday as well. Amidst this, the Madras High Court has stayed the construction of new copper smelter by Sterlite plant. The opposition parties in Tamil Nadu have unanimously condemned the police firing; Congress president Rahul Gandhi has called the incident ‘state sponsored terrorism’. Film stars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan who are set to form new political parties, have announced their support to the anti-Sterlite protests.
Sterite Copper Industries (India) which manufactures electronic circuit elements, copper wires, copper ingots and zinc, also produces chemical substances such as sulphuric acid and phosphoric acid. Sterlite industrial plant in Thoothukudi belongs to Vedanta Group owned by Anil Agarwal, an Indian origin billionaire who is settled in England. But it has been quite some time since the residents started raising complaints against the company which claims to provide full time jobs to 1,000 people, contract jobs to 2,000 and indirect employment opportunities for 25, 000 people. The people have been citing genuine grievances such as poisonous gases being released from the plants and tons of garbage dumped into the agricultural lands leading to cancer and other serious respiratory diseases.
The water resources adjacent to the plant have been polluted. In March 2013, hundreds of residents suffered breathing difficulties, throat inflammations and other complaints following a leak in the plant. Although the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board which intervened in the matter had ordered to shut down the plant after finding that it violated the regulations, the National Green Tribunal gave the green light to the company to continue functioning. In 2013, following a plea filed by ADMK leader Vaiko Gopalaswamy, the Supreme Court had imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore for the pollution the company has been causing for years. However, the owners of the plant had gotten away claiming that they have been abiding by the pollution control regulations. At the same time, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board points out that Sterlite plant has been illegally generating thousands of tons of solid waste for the last 5 years. It is notable that similar complaints have been raised against the chemical factories owned by Vedanta Group in Africa by the residents there.
In brief, what is happening in Thoothukudi is just another repetition of myriads of such incidents: in the race of corporate tycoons to amass wealth, the life and health of the common man becomes the last concern. The people in Kerala know from experience how for decades the people suffered the punishment from the pollution in and around Mavoor caused by billionaire Birla's Grasim Pulp Factory. During the period, in spite of the frightening proliferation of cancer and pulmonary diseases, the left and right front politicians and labour unions were siding with Birla boastfully under the pretext of employment opportunities. It was only when the local populace reached the brink of their tolerance limit that they forced Grasim to shut down through a vigorous popular agitation. Even today, there are politicians who argue that it was a mistake. In their eyes, the life and health of ordinary people are not valuable commodities. In their eyes the air and water, generously gifted by nature, are just means of raising money for corporate capitalists - and governments playing second fiddle to them. And now in Thoothukudi, we see the exciting march of the local populace, when they were left with no alternative except the path of agitation, for the protection of ecology even at the cost of their lives. Every lover of humanity with empathy is sure to stand by them.