Thirteen people were killed and several injured in police firing in the port city of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) in Tamil Nadu on 22 May 2018 after a crowd close to 20,000 started protesting over pollution concerns against the Sterlite Copper, a unit of London based Vedanta Resources, one of the world’s largest metal and mining transnational corporations. They were demanding scrapping of proposed expansion of the copper smelter and its immediate closure. When the rally reached the Collector’s office, the police opened fire twice. The police opened fire again at Threspuram, a fishermen’s village, when demonstrators gathered in the evening to protest against the earlier firing. Most of the deceased had bullet marks on their face, chest or abdomen. One of them is a girl aged 17. The demonstration on 22nd May was preceded by various forms of peaceful protest over the last 100 days which include indefinite fast by around 250 people who were arrested, successful strike called by over 50 associations on 25th March, and a huge demonstration by thousands in Tuticorin and even a demonstration by British Tamils at the home of Vedanta Chief Anil Aggarwal in London. The government tried to justify the police action as being due to the protests turning violent, whereas, protestors claimed that some turned violent after unprovoked police firing. Visuals of policemen atop vehicles opening fire pointedly targeting the protestors lend credence to speculation that the firing was pre-planned.
There has been opposition from the people to this copper smelting plant from its inception in 1996. Protesters have raised concern over the pollution belching out of the copper plant, including issues relating to disposal of copper waste and effluents from the operational unit. In 2008 a study found that the iron content in the water sources of two villages near the plant was 20 times more than the permitted limit. Dangerously high levels of sulfur dioxide emissions have been repeatedly documented. A study by the Tiruneveli Medical College in 2008 covering 80,725 people residing within a 5 km radius of the smelting plant found that 13.9 % of the population suffered from respiratory diseases. It stated that “The attributable cause is…the presence of gases, mixture of gases and particulate matter”. In Kumarredyapuram, the villagers alleged that pollutants from the Sterlite factory were causing breathing disorders, skin diseases, heart conditions and cancer, among other health problems. In 2011, the Supreme Court ordered the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to inspect the copper smelting plant and submit a report. The study found high levels of copper, lead, cadmium and fluoride in the groundwater in the area. In March 2013, hundreds of people suffered breathing difficulty, nausea and throat infection following a gas leak from the plant. Across the world, copper smelting leads to the groundwater becoming contaminated with arsenic, lead, selenium and aluminium, all of which are detrimental to people’s health and which experts feel has contributed to a higher incidence of cancer in the area.
Violations of the laws and false claims by Sterlite abound. There are even documents to show that environmental clearance given to the expansion project in 2009 was illegal and based on false documents. The clearance was given without a public hearing. In September 2010, the High Court gave direction to the company to close down its Tuticorin plant. The company then appealed to the Supreme Court which passed an interim order staying the High Court order. Following a gas leak in March 2013, the then chief minister the late J Jayalalithaa, ordered its closure following which the company moved the National Green Tribunal. With the tribunal overturning the government order, the state moved the Supreme Court against it, and the petition was still pending there. The plant was closed since 27th March 2018 by the management for so called maintenance for 15 days. Actually the license from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) for operating the plant has expired on 31st March. Meanwhile, the company was seeking to expand the plant building another unit to double its capacity.
This incident of murder by the state to serve the interests of a corporate is a brutal example of state sponsored terrorism. The firing on an unarmed crowd completely exposes the nature of the state. “What crime did we do to be shot at? Does a private company really need to be given such protection?” questioned one of the protestors. The incident also shows that the state is not for the people and there is no scope for people’s democracy. People were protesting peacefully for the past 100 days and no heed were paid to fulfill people’s just demand of protecting the environment. The incident has posed serious doubts over the fate of democratic voices and protests in India. The developed nations, being unable to built polluting industries in their own countries due to peoples’ protest there, are making developing countries the guinea pig of their experiments. With the looming of neo-liberalism (or rather neo-colonialism), the developed countries are capturing the profits of global capital while the people in the developing nations are left with the option to bear the burn of unemployment, poverty and the environmental pollution.