Political apathy forced Tuticorin residents' hands against Sterlite

Last Updated: Fri, May 25, 2018 16:06 hrs
Anti-Sterlite protest

In the aftermath of the violent protests this week in Tuticorin, that lead to the death of 13 people, tensions remain high, as residents live in fear of a agitations breaking out again. The Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami ordered the setting up of a one-member commission of inquiry to look into the firing by the police against protestors. He defended the actions of the police stating they acted in self defense.

However, both major parties in the state have not taken the issue head on over the past 2 decades.

The Hindu editorial called the incident preventable and stated the need for an inquiry –

The Tamil Nadu government failed to gauge the intensity of what was coming. It is a tragic irony that such an angry and violent demonstration could have been staged at a time when the plant is not operational”.

Any police response must be commensurate with the gravity of the situation; there is no place for heavy-handedness and a disproportionate use of force. The inquiry must establish who gave the orders to fire and on what basis. Also, why did the police failed to intervene well before the protest developed an angry head of steam”.

The CEO of Sterlite Copper CEO P Ramnath, earlier this week called the events unfortunate saying in part, “…totally regret what happened today. It was totally uncalled for and is really unfortunate”. Billionaire Anil Agarwal of Vedanta, in the aftermath of the events in Tuticorin, stated he would step back from running the company. The plant in question is run by Vedanta's Sterlite Copper unit, which is controlled by Vedanta Ltd

It is not the position of state to seek permanent closure of the plant. On Thursday, authorities cut power to the plant. The agitation against the Sterlite unit has entered its third month in Tuticorin. The plant has a capacity to produce 4 lakh tonnes of copper cathode a year. In March, the plant was shut as part of a 15 day scheduled maintenance. However, the plant has been closed since March 27. On Wednesday, the Madras High Court stayed the construction of a new copper smelter by Sterlite.

A report in Vikatan quotes the leader of the Tamil National Federation, P.Maniyarasan who condemned the protests and criticized the state government for not resolving the issue. He expressed sympathy with the people saying part, “What is wrong if the people who conducted the struggle sit in the district collector's office? The Government of Tamil Nadu should have negotiated this”.

During the closure, Vedanta applied for a license for operation in April, which was rejected by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). The reason given was the company did not comply with local environmental and pollution control laws. The pollution control board has accused the plant of dumping copper slag in a river and not commissioning and providing reports on the status of the groundwater near the plant and surrounding villages. In 2013, the plant was closed for several weeks due to a case at the National Green Tribunal.

In March of this year, thousands of residents took to the streets to protest and demand the closure of Vedanta Sterlite's copper operations. Many local residents along with Merchants Association, Tuticorin Chamber of Commerce and auto rickshaw unions made the peaceful protests possible. The company had come under criticism from actor turned political activist Rajinikanth, where he questioned the government’s motives in allowing Sterlite to continue its operations in the city. The company responded to the criticism.

The history of the company in the state started in 1994 when the TNPCB granted permission for the company to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment for the construction of a plant. The license to operate was given in 1996.

The first closure came in 1998 after it was found that the company violated various rules and norms under the guidelines of the license it was issued. In the following years, numerous complaints of gas leaks were reported, leading to people in surrounding areas to fall ill. The closures however, were short term incidents.

Environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who has done extensive research and reporting on the Sterlite issue has criticized the role played by TNPCB, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the local district administration in helping Sterlite throughout the years. A report authored by his organization, Chennai Solidarity Group stated that the local officials protected Sterlite and were complicit in their actions as well as those by the TBPCB.

The company has donated to both political parties over the last decade. As reported in The Wire, the BJP received Rs.15 crore from Sterlite Industries in 2013-14 and the Congress received Rs.1 crore in 2004-05 and Rs.5 crore in 2009-10.

The struggle here bares resemblance to the Bhopal gas tragedy and the struggle against Dow Chemical and Union Carbide. In Tamil Nadu, with respect to this issue, going back 2 decades, no major party or politician has taken any meaningful steps in engaging with the people in the community, except Vaiko of the MDMK. In 2013, he along with a group of people were arrested for protesting; demanding the closure of the plant after a gas leak had occurred.

The company also benefited from a decision made by the NDA government shortly after it came to power in 2014. A clarification put out by the government and approved by the then environment minister stated that factories inside the designated industrial zones would not need to consult people even if the zones had never got an environment clearance.

In the mantra of ‘ease of doing business’, many companies including Vedanta benefited from this decision, as prior to this, getting an environmental clearance would need public hearings. But the UPA on receiving a renewal request of the license in 2013, stated that cases such as these i.e. expansion plans that Vedanta had, required public consultation. As a result, they reversed their own 2009 policy, when it granted a 5 year license without any hearings. The incoming NDA government in 2015 granted the license without any public hearings.

This seems to be a classic case of government and private institutions looking out for each other at the expense of the people and the environment. A large powerful corporation with financial resources has flouted norms on multiple occasions and gotten away with it. The courts too seem to have caved. The local and state government of the present and past haven’t broached the issue with any seriousness and seem to have punted on every occasion. The deaths as a result of violent protests have garnered national attention and called into question the actions of the police and law enforcement. This leaves local and national activists and the citizens to fend for themselves.

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