At least 12 people were killed and more than 65 others injured after police opened fire at the anti-Sterlite protestors in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi. The people here are up in arms against the construction of a copper plant by the Sterlite Industries, a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, a metals and mining conglomerate. Chennai-based writer and activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who has been associated with this movement since 2003, tells Outlook why the protest is important:
Why Thoothukudi people are protesting against Sterlite Industries?
They are angry because sterlite is polluting. They have been demanding that the factory should be shut down. They feel betrayed by the Supreme Court, the pollution control board, the district administration, the ministry of environment and the state government. All of them are supposed to regulate and enforce the law. But, they have been blatantly supporting the company. The people are also very upset because wherever they go in that town they see the name of Sterlite, a company that they despise because of its pollution. They see the name of Sterlite because the company, in the name of corporate social responsibility, has been "adopting" parks in the collectorate campsu, paying large sums of money to the Thoothukudi police for purchse of CCTV cameras and things like that, which highlight the conflict of interest. It also explains to the people that they don’t really matter, that the rich guys get together and protect their own interests. The third reason why things came to a head over the last one year is the fact that as people are demanding for the closure of the existing factory, the government of India and the government of Tamil Nadu have allowed the company to set up an entirely new factory of the same capacity in a neighbouring plot of land based on fraudulent information. Now, from having to deal with one bad factory they will have to deal with two big factories.
How did the protest turn violent?
On March 24, 2018, about two lakh people had gathered peacefully. That protest was peaceful also because the government allowed it to be peaceful and the police did not provoke or irritate them. The people came, gathered and spoke their demand. They said that they want the existing factory to be shut down. There’s enough evidence to shut it down. We don’t want a new construction. We don’t want a new factory. Rather than responding to their demands, the government ignored them. This got the people really angry. The construction is ongoing at the new copper smelter complex. While people are asking for shutdown of the existing copper smelter, a new copper smelter is being built on illegal grounds and on the basis of fraudulent submissions made by the company and supported by government agencies.
Has Sterlite caused any health hazards?
There is very clear evidence that something is wrong in Thoothukudi. There have been extremely high incidence of reported cancer virtually in every single community in the neighbourhood. Definitely, there is higher morbidity in terms of respiratory disorders. All studies have found higher incidence of muscular skeletal disorders in the villages around. It matches the findings of government medical college’s study in 2008. In the case of sterlite- as the case is elsewhere including in Bhopal, the government continuously use the absence of evidence or the absence of data as the proof of absence of a problem. In this case, there have been complaints of health problems at least since 2004 and the pollution control board itself has taken cognizance of it and asked for health studies to be conducted. But, till date, neither the government, nor the pollution control board has come forward to do any kind of credible study into the pattern and the nature of diseases around the factory. This is now being thrown back at the people asking them to prove. How are you supposed to prove besides showing your body as proof? This is what the people of Bhopal were asked to do. This is what the people of Kodaikanal were asked to do. But, they said it’s not my job to prove this. I am already suffering. You prove that you didn’t cause this.
Is Sterlite problematic elsewhere?
Sterlite is a controversial industry in every single place. We know Niyamgiri, where police unleashed violence against innocent tribals, put them in jails branding them as naxals and tortured. Eventually, the Supreme Court intervened and required a gram sabha resolution and the company was not allowed to mine. They have a huge plant in Jharsuguda in Odisha. They also have Balco (Bharat Aluminium Company). The purchase of Balco was done in an extremely unfavourable terms to the government of India. There are questionable means in which the public sector company was handed over to Sterlite. An under-construction chimney had collapsed over there killing over 40 people. The company has a very problematic track record in India and elsewhere. We know the case in the UK court where Zambian villagers have won the right to sue Vedanta. Norvegian pension fund, the world’s largest, has blacklisted Vedanta for its controversial operations which have a negative bearing on environment and human rights.