The turmoil in Tuticorin is symbolic of India’s high-decibel development at all costs that threatens the ecological, economic and health security of its people.
After a month-long protest for the closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) of Tamil Nadu in the wake of pollution, concerns turned violent on May 22. At least 11 people protesting against the expansion plans of the copper-smelting plant were killed, and around 50 injured when the police open fired. Innocent and unarmed citizens on protests were massacred with disproportionate use of force by the Tamil Nadu police, including ‘sniper-style shooting’ using semi-automatic rifles.
Around 5,000 protesters had gathered near a local church and insisted on taking out a rally to the district collectorate after they were denied permission to march to the copper smelter plant. Protesters alleged that the smelter was polluting groundwater in their area. Initially what was seen to be pushing and shoving between the people and the officials soon led to a violent clash. Security personnel used batons and burst teargas shells to break up the protest and as the violence spiralled, police open fired.
What does the plant do?
The smelter, which produces 400,000 tonnes of copper cathode a year, was planning to double the capacity to 800,000 tonnes per year. It is run by Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit, which is controlled by Vedanta Ltd, a majority-owned subsidiary of London-listed Vedanta. The plant has been shut since March 27, when it was closed as part of a 15-day scheduled maintenance.
After the protests got violent, P Ramnath, CEO of Sterlite Copper has claimed that the plant had adhered to all conditions imposed by NEERI and the Supreme Court and its facilities would now conform to the benchmarks set by International Finance Corporation (IFC). Maintaining that the plant was not a polluter, the company had offered to open its gates “for people to see for themselves than believe rumours and half-truths.” The activists, however, turned down the offer, saying the problem was not what happened inside the factory but the pollution it caused inside.
Tuticorin, 590 kilometers off the south of Chennai is known as the ‘pearl city’ due to the pearl farming that takes place on this Coromandel Coast in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. But now it has become Tamil Nadu’s worst polluted city.
An activist group accused the pollution board of allowing the company to operate its smelter with shorter chimney stacks which helped the company reduce costs but harmed the environment. A report published by the Tirunelveli Medical College found a high prevalence of asthma, pharyngitis, sinusitis and other respiratory tract infections, all proxies for the presence of harmful gases and particulate irritants in the lower atmosphere. They also found an inexplicably high incidence of menstrual disorders, like menorrhagia and dysmenorrhea, in women living in the area.
Right to life
Tuticorin citizens have been protesting for the last 100 days against the expansion of Sterlite Copper in Tuticorin. The reasons for their protest were their fundamental right to life and water.
Copper smelting contaminates the groundwater with arsenic, lead, selenium and aluminium. This is quite detrimental to people’s health and has often contributed to a higher incidence of cancer in the area.
The 400,000-tonne capacity smelting plant of Sterlite has been at the centre of the pollution controversy since it was proposed in 1995. This plant was rejected by three states — Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra, because of its highly polluting nature; before it was allowed to be set up in Tamil Nadu.
While taking Environment Clearance (EC), the company had flouted norms by misrepresenting facts and giving a faulty Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. Firstly, it said that the plant is not located within 25 km of ecologically-sensitive areas, which was found to be wrong as the plant is located near the Munnar Marine National Park. In addition, the company submitted a faulty rapid EIA report without conducting any public hearing.
In 2004, a Supreme Court (SC) monitoring committee found that the plant had not provided adequate infrastructure and facilities for management of highly toxic arsenic-containing wastes. The plant was also found to be emitting sulphur dioxide far in excess of the permissible standards.
In 2010, the Madras High Court closed the plant because it was polluting the environment and had flouted norms while setting up the plant. In 2013, the Supreme Court imposed a penalty of INR 1 billion on the company for polluting the environment.
In March 2013, a toxic gas leak from the plant made hundreds of residents living in its vicinity sick. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered the closure of the smelting unit on March 29, but the principal bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) gave a clean chit to Sterlite and revoked the closure order based on technicalities.
Opposition to Sterlite mere lip service
Any opposition to Sterlite industries is mere lip service. In fact, the Vedanta Group patronised both the Congress and the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) through political donations.
In January 2013, former secretary to the Government of India, EAS Sarma, and the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Delhi High Court claiming that the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had accepted donations from the UK-based Vedanta Group in violation of the Representation of People’s Act 1951 and the FCR Act of 1976 and 2010.
Norms thrown to the winds
There is nothing new happening in Tuticorin in terms of air pollution or water pollution, due to industrial activities.
But what is acuter in India is how of late the environmental clearance norms have been thrown to the winds systematically in favour of the ease of doing business in India. In 2017, India ranked 100 in the ease of doing business, formulated by the World Bank. It had climbed up 30 spots.
The rankings are based on a country’s regulatory laws for running a business, calculated by measuring the ease or difficulty for starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, enforcing contracts, among other factors.
The BJP-led government has diluted environmental legislation to make business easy, which may have multifarious impacts on the country’s environment.
An audit report on environmental clearances by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), which came out in March 2017, also reflects the non-compliance with existing laws.
Rise in copper prices
After the closure of the plant, copper prices have spiked up. The plant has the capacity to produce 400,000 tonnes of copper per year. It has a share of about 35 pc in India’s primary copper market and exports mainly to the Gulf and Asian countries. There has been a rise in India’s copper consumption over the last few years. According to an April report by ICRA Ltd, at current local demand growth of 7 pc to 8 pc per year, India may turn into a net importer of copper by the year ending March 2020 if no new plant is commissioned.
Police brutality in the state was widely condemned. Several politicians spoke out against the attack. DMK leader MK Stalin, targeting the AIADMK government of E Palaniswami compared the attacks to the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Congress President Rahul Gandhi said in a tweet, “Tamilians are being murdered because they refused to bow down to RSS ideals. RSS and Modi supporters cannot crush down the Tamil people’s emotions. Tamil brothers and sisters, we are with you.”
“Considering the history of this plant, the residents were justified in protesting against the expansion. This plant has polluted the environment and flouted standards with impunity for the past 20 years”, said Sunita Narain, director general of the leading think-tank, Centre for Science & Environment, while condemning the killing of innocent protestors.
With the death of innocent citizens, the cries of the people of Thoothukudi- “Copper for Sterlite and Cancer for People”- is a new phase in the renewed anti-Sterlite struggle. However, it will certainly be a long-drawn battle.