The Sterlite protest took an ugly turn on the completion of its 100th day on 22th May. The protesters clashed with the police and burned down vehicles. The police too opened fire in which more than 10 people were killed while several others were severely injured. The protesters in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu have been demanding to shut down the operations of the UK-based Vedanta Resources’ Sterlite Copper plant, since it’s causing serious environmental damages to its surroundings. After the incident Rahul Gandhi was quick enough to make baseless allegations against the RSS. He claimed that the protesters were killed for not following the ideology of the RSS. However his allegation is far from the truth. The copper plant which blatantly defied environmental regulations was allowed to function and survive, with the help of DMK, AIADMK and Congress throughout the years.
What is Sterlite India Copper Plant?
It is a subsidiary of the London based Vedanta group. The company was founded in 1975 by Anil Agarwal. In India its head quarter is in Mumbai. The company mainly produces non-ferrous metals like copper, aluminium, zinc, sulphuric acid, phosphoric acid and is also engaged in the mining of bauxite, zinc ore, production of various aluminum products, manufacture of zinc ingots and lead ingots. It has two plants in India, one is in Silvassa, Daman & Diu and the other one is in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu.
Controversies around the Sterlite Plant
Recent controversy around the sterlite plant is not something new. It has been long opposed by the locals for causing hazardous damage to the environment and health of the people. In 1993, the construction of the plant in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra was demolished by the angry locals but even after the protest the company carried on with their construction work. The locals demanded its construction to be closed after they got to know about the damages the emissions from such plants causes. The Sterlite stopped their construction work only after the district collector and the Maharashtra government intervened. They still occupy the 500 acre land that has been allotted to them for the construction. The locals are now demanding the company to surrender the control of the land.
After the Ratnagiri fiasco, Sterlite moved to Tamil Nadu which was under the corrupt government of Jayalalitha. The locals protested there also but the protest was crushed down by the government and within a year they got all the clearance. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) in 1994 granted ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) for construction of the plant. In 1995, the Ministry of Environment granted Environment Clearance without Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and TNPCB also did the similar thing.
In 1996, Sterlite obtained permission from TNPCB to begin the production. During that time DMK was in power. Deve Gowda Government of third front was ruling at the Centre which was supported by the Congress party. The Protests erupted this time as well but the political manoeuvre of the ruling party ensured the continuation of the plant. Throughout the year, locals complained about air and water pollution with the District Collectorate. A case was filed by the National Trust for Clean Environment (NTCE) for the permanent shutdown of the Sterlite plant.
In 1997, agitations erupted again when the news of gas leak broke out. People complained of headache, coughing and choking due to smoke emanating from the Sterlite plant. Many of the locals fainted and were hospitalized. But still the TNPCB again gave the clean chit to the company. In the same year, George Fernandes and Vaiko launched protests organized by NTCE demanding permanent shutdown of the operations of the plant.
In the year 1998, the Madras High Court ordered the stay on the plant’s operation on the grounds that Sterlite plant had not met a single condition of conserving the environment. The court’s order was based on the study on Sterlite’s pollution conducted by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). In the study carried out by NEERI, it was found that the Sterlite plant, had failed to develop a greenbelt. The plant was indulged in producing the products it was not authorized to; it contaminated the groundwater with arsenic, lead, selenium, arsenic, aluminium and copper. On these grounds, Madras High court on November 23, 1998 ordered to shutdown the company. However, a week later court made a U-Turn and asks NEERI to do another study. In its second report NEERI gave clean chit to the company. In 1999, TNPCB under M. Karunanidhi allowed Sterlite plant to increase its production to 70,000 tonnes per annum; earlier it was 40,000 tonnes per annum.
In 2001, Locals complained about the release of arsenic laced toxic waste water by Sterlite. According to some reports arsenic laced wastewater released by Sterlite flooded the Silverpuram, Meelavittan and Kaluthaikuttan tanks. The locals complained to the TNPCB but there was no action taken against them.
In 2004, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) team inspected Sterlite expansion and in its study it opposed its expansion. Even then sterlite was already using expanded units violating the environment rules, laws and regulations. The Committee directed the Pollution control board to take action against the expanded units under the various environment laws. It also directed TNPCB to carry on further investigation but the then UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh gave clearance for the expansion. A. Raja of DMK was heading the environment ministry during that time. TNPCB in its investigation found that Sterlite was operating over its production limit of 70,000 tonnes (165, 000 tonnes produced in a year) without caring about its harmful impacts on the environment. During the investigation it was found that many other plants were under construction and some of them didn’t even have any permission or license. In the same year P. Chidambaram contested to become the Finance Minister of India before that he served as the non-executive director of Vedanta, the parent company of Sterlite Copper.
In 2005, both SCMC and Ministry of Environment and Forest directed TNPCB to give consent to operate all illegally constructed units within the plant. And Sterlite continued to expand and pollute. In 2007, Sterlite plant got the clearance from the Manmohan Singh government to expand its operational capacity to produce 4.2 lakh tonnes a year. In 2009, the company got the environment clearance to expand its capacity.
In 2010, On 28 September, the Madras High Court ordered the shutdown of operations of Sterlite’s company citing violations of law and for polluting the environment. The company went to Supreme Court and only three days later, the Supreme Court ordered stay on the High Court’s order. This allowed the company to continue with its operations.
In 2013, the Supreme Court in its final order found the company guilty of violation of environmental norms. And the SC imposed Rs 100 crore fine on the Sterlite company and allowed it to continue with its operations. This judgment was illogical on the basis that how can a fine of 100 crore can undone the immense damage done by the company to the environment.
The two main parties of Tamil Nadu DMK and AIADMK have made sure that the Sterlite Company could continue with its operations without any problem. They turned a blind eye to the violation and the environmental damages done by the company. The company deserved to be shut down for the immense damage that it has caused to the environment. But the company continued to flourish under political patronage of both the parties.
TNPCB last year found that the Sterlite plant of violating six parameters of Air (Prevention and Control of) Pollution Act, 1981, and 11 parameters of the Water (Prevention and Control of) Pollution Act, 1974 (amended in 1988).
In 2018, fresh round of protests against the Sterlite firm began in the month of February. On 22 May protestors wanted to mark the 100th day of the protest. Their peaceful protest turned violent. In order to stop them the police opened fired and more than 10 protestors lost their lives.
But, why did the protest turned violent?
Indications were plenty that violence could take place on 22nd May. Vedanta filed a petition on 16 May demanding section 144 to be imposed over one km radius area of the sterlite plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, as some organization were planning to get violent during the protest.
On 18th May, the Court agreed to their demands as many pamphlets and provocative posters instigating protestors to commit violence were found. On 20th May, Thoothukudi district officers entered into talks with many organizations asking them to drop the idea of storming the Collecttorate. Most of the organizations boycotted the meeting; however, few businesses and trade organization and other organizations attended the meeting.
According to swarajya report, all those who attended the meeting agreed to organize the protests at SAV High School instead of converging on the collectorate office. One of the leaders of anti-sterlite forum, Fathima babu attended the meeting after that the forum expelled her and decided to go ahead with its plan. After that the police arrested eight people including Fathima Babu as a preventive measure. But surprisingly police did not arrested anyone from organizations like Makkal Adhigaram (People’s Rights), Puratchi Illaignar Munnani (Revolutionary Youth Front),Naam Tamizhar. It is reported that naxals have penetrated in these organizations.
Churches also played a great role in provoking the protestors in getting violent. The Church asked its followers to gather in large number to celebrate the 100th day of the protest. Atleast 5,000 people gathered in front of the Church of the Lady of Snow in Thoothukudi and they all marched towards the collector’s office.
The March started from four different places. One group of protestors was led by the Geetha Jeevan, DMK member of legislative the assembly. She along with her followers was successfully stopped by the police at the gate of Sterlite and was arrested. Another group, comprising mainly of villagers were successfully stopped by the police again. They began their march from Madathur village.
The trouble was created by those who began their march from the Church. The strength of the protestor was around 10,000. The police stopped the protestors near the warehouse of Food Corporation of India but then the crowd overpowered the police and began marching ahead towards the collectorate’s office. The Police with all its limited strength gathered and began to retaliate. A fraction of the protestor consisting of 250 people entered into the quarter of Sterlite employees’ and set the vehicles on fire. When the police called the fire engines from the plant to extinguish the fire, the mob set fire on the fire engines as well. A war like situation was created in the Thoothukudi. The police took four hours to bring the situation under control.
While the protests have been taking place since the month of February, on 10th April TNPCB rejected the application of Sterlite’s for renewal of consent to operate the copper plant. On 23rd May, Madras High Court, citing the possibility of violence put a stay on the expansion of the Sterlite plant. The Intelligence Bureau of Tamil Nadu also shared the details of violence being planned by the organization like Makkal Adhigaram and Puratchi Makkal Munnai organisations on 22 May. Naxals in these organizations penetrated into the protest and hijacked it completely. There was ample information available about the plan to unleash the violence on 22nd May. But still the state government chose to neglect it. There were hardly 1,500 policemen to manage the crowd of protestors consisting of over 10,000 people.
After this incident there are many points to ponder upon such as why the bullets were fired on the chest and the face? Why did the police not opt to fire from a lying prone position? When they already had information that violence would take place then why didn’t they make proper arrangements to counter or dilute it? Were sufficient warnings were given before the open fire? Why they haven’t learned anything from the Jallikaatu protests in Chennai? And lastly why Tamil Nadu is not banning the Naxal organizations?
Tamil Nadu government has ordered an investigation into the incident but the thing is Jallikattu case investigation is still not ever. No one knows how long it will take to complete the investigation of the sterlite case.
Until then Rahul Gandhi should do some research about his party and its dirty politics before pointing finger at RSS and the BJP. Most of the problems in this country are the results of the policies led by his government and the sterlite issue in Tamil Nadu is one of them.
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