It took a hundred days and thirteen human deaths before the protest against the Sterlite plant, owned by Vedanta Resources PLC, in Thoothukudi, made it to the front pages of newspapers and the headlines of national news.As the skeletons tumble out of the cupboard, we now know that both the UPA and the NDA governments allowed Sterlite to skip the mandatory public hearing process to get environmental clearance to its expansion plans, on the grounds that the plant was coming up inside a notified industrial park. The fact that the park itself didn’t have a green nod did not seem to count.
For years now, the plant has been emitting hazardous substances, which have affected the residents of the town. When it all came to a head this week, with the public protest turning violent and police resorting to open fire, the attention has turned to government highhandedness rather than the core issue – environmental damage in the name of development. Almost at the same time, in a state at the other end of the country, Punjab, another ecological disaster has been playing out. The spill of molasses from the Chadha sugar mill in Gurdaspur killed schools of fish in the Beas, and it was three days before a dolphin, once plentiful in the river, could be sighted. While the forest department began to prepare a damage report on habitat loss caused by the spill, the state waited for its chief minister Amarinder Singh to return from holidaying in Manali. The report was not filed in the court for two days because the district attorney was “busy”. In the meanwhile, fishermen have complained that the sugar mill used to spill acidic fluid into the river even earlier, a claim both the mill and the department of fisheries have denied.
What do the two have in common, other than the enormous damage to life and livelihood they have caused? They are owned by business people who are believed to be politically influential. Vedanta has an abysmal track record where human rights and ecological damage are concerned. In 2004, the company was charged by a committee of the Supreme Court with dumping thousands of tons of arsenic-bearing slag in its factory in Tamil Nadu. The following year, another committee of the Supreme Court found it had forced more than a hundred residents from their homes in Orissa, using hired goons, in order to mine bauxite in the area. And yet, the company and its subsidiaries continue to function in the country. The Chadha sugar mill is owned and run by Jasdeep Kaur, widow of Hardeep Chadha, who was killed in a shootout with his brother Ponty Chadha in 2012. Kaur was born into the Sarna family, and her uncle is “religious adviser” to Punjab CM Amarinder Singh. Kaur’s father and uncle met the Industries Minister O P Soni, evidently to explain that the spill was an accident. Some media reports say the spill was caused by a bacterial infection in the tanks. The plant in question has a capacity to crush 6500 tonnes of sugarcane per day. One can only imagine the damage the spill has potentially caused. Shutting down plants after ecological disasters does not undo the damage. India has a terrible history of permitting environmental disasters and taking retrospective and inadequate action. A case in point is the World Culture Festival held by the Art of Living Foundation in 2016, which the National Green Tribunal said caused immense damage to the Yamuna floodplains. Grand stadiums had been erected on the floodplains, and photographs showed tonnes of non-biodegradable waste dumped on the sites. An expert committee estimated that the restoration of the floodplains would take a decade and cost more than Rs. 13 crore. The damage was caused by a three-day event, which killed nearly all the natural aquatic vegetation, habitat to an entire marine ecosystem. The Art of Living foundation was fined Rs. 5 crore as “interim environmental compensation”, with the Delhi Development Authority empowered to recover more money if required. The festival did not require environmental clearance, according to the Ministry of Environment. For too long, the government has been on the side of the industries. Back in 1984, four days after the gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal which killed thousands of people and continues to impact tens of thousands of lives decades later, the company’s chairman Warren Anderson was arrested and then allowed to flee the country, never to return to face trial. While then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Arjun Singh wrote in his autobiography that Anderson’s flight had the blessing of the Congress government at the Centre, then collector of Bhopal Moti Singh claimed Anderson contacted American officials who were able to pressure the Indian government into letting him leave. How many more deaths and how many more disasters before we learn that environmental damage cannot be reversed? For how much longer can we embrace the myth of India’s development and emergence as an industrial force at the cost of its people’s and animals’ lives?