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Sterlite Protest

Sterlite Protest

It was a black day in the history of the country when 13 people were killed in a police firing at Tuticorin on May 22.  This brings back the memories of massacre at Jallianwala Bagh (1919) during India’s freedom struggle. When unarmed citizens are gunned down it is a massacre and the State should own responsibility and punish those responsible for this cold blooded murder. 

Tuticorin/Thootukodi is one of the thirty-two districts in Tamil Nadu with a population of 1,750,176.  It was created as a district only in 1986.  Tuticorin has the second highest population of Christians (16.70%)   next only to Kanyakumari which has the highest number of Christians (44.74%).  The neighbouring districts are Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari.  Known as pearl fishery coast, these districts have a significant percentage of minorities (Christians and Muslims).  The first Tamil printing was introduced in a place called Punnaikayal in Tuticorin by Jesuit Henrique Henriques in 1578.  The great Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier worked here before going to China.    

More than Sterlite

People in these three districts have been fighting in the last quarter of the century against many of the projects which are anti-people.  The Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant in the Tirunelveli district, Sterlite in Tuticorin, Enayam port in the Kanyakumari district and the Sagar Mala project of the union government are the major projects these three districts have experienced.  The Sagar Mala project which proposes to link all the small ports to a big port is invariably not owned by the government but by a big business group.  The topography has dramatically changed in the last quarter of the century.  These districts were historically dependent on fishing and agriculture.  But the new so called ‘developmental’ projects are environmentally dangerous projects.  Tuticorin has a Thermal Power Station and with the Sterlite plant more damage has been done to the sea, ground water and air and this has reduced the livelihood options for the people.  The industrial waste let out in the sea has reduced the catch for the fisherfolk of this area.   Industrial accidents like Chernobyl in USSR and Bhopal Gas tragedy by Union Carbide in our own country have not taught us any lessons. 

Anti-Sterlite Movement

In Tuticorin, the protest against Sterlite’s copper smelter plant is as old as two decades and it was a revival of a long forgotten people’s movement of the 90s.  The reason for the revival on March 24 this year is due to the proposed Rs.3500 crore expansion plans of Sterlite Industries.  This was a show of solidarity with the people of Kumarareddiarpuram who waged a relentless battle against Sterlite industries, a subsidiary of the London-listed conglomerate Vedanta Resources.  At the time of opening, the cost of the project was 1300 crore and the foundation was laid by the then Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha in 1994.  The company was given fast track clearances by both the union and state governments.  Sterlite was rejected by the people of Goa, Gujarat and Maharashtra.  Environmentalists like Rashmi Mayur opposed the plant in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra and the then CM Sharad Pawar gave them the marching orders. 

The Anti-Sterlite Movement (ASM) was one of the earliest to oppose the plant.  They opposed it because of the sheer composition of the plant.  This plant has a copper smelter, a refinery, a phosphoric acid plant, a sulfuric acid plant and a copper rod plant.  It has its own three power plants.  Realizing the danger in handling the chemical plants in the event of leakage and considering the environmental and health hazards, the people of Tuticorin opposed Sterlite as it came to the state after being rejected by three states.

The ASM was initially spearheaded by the Communist Party of India (CPI) but later it was Anton Gomez, the State convener of the National Forum for Environmental Protection, who provided the much needed leadership as ‘son of the soil’.   Fisher folk were the first to realize the danger of this plant. As most of the fisher folk belong to the Christian community, the Church took the leadership in organizing them.  At the national level Rashmi Mayur who dumped the plant into the Arabian Sea in Maharashtra, George Fernandez, Medha Patkar and Thomas Kocherry of National Fisher-folk movement by their constant presence in Tuticorin and by advocacy, made this issue known at the national level.  The Opposition leaders in Tamil Nadu over the years lent their support to the movement.  The united opposition of the people from various backgrounds and movements against Sterlite were scattered by the management of the Sterlite cleverly by setting one against another.  Inter-caste rivalry had also taken a good toll of people in the late nineties from the anti-sterlite movement.  Sterlite used this period to consolidate its position and Tamil Nadu witnessed the worst kind of caste clashes.    

Sterlite Plant – Accidents and Court Cases

When the production started in 1997 onwards, the movement was weak and it was systematically weakened by the Sterlite.  The resurgence of ASM happened due to the accidents that were taking place inside and outside the sterlite plant regularly.  People were dying inside the company due to gas leak and over-exposure to chemicals.  On one occasion (5th of July 1997), 160 women working in a flower export unit outside the plant became dizzy because the air contained high concentration of sulphur dioxide.  Similarly people working closer to the Sterlite plant complained of nausea and vomiting.  Public health deteriorated from the time the plant started its production.  A major leak on March 23rd 2013 led to its closure.  People of Tuticorin experienced burning eyes, breathing problems and soreness in the throat.  Fear gripped the general public of Tuticorin which can be called the period of revival of the Anti-Sterlite Movement.   The Supreme Court directed Sterlite to pay 100 crore and opened it for operations.

On several occasions the Sterlite plant was closed by the orders from the courts, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and National Green Tribunal (NGT).  Since 1998 the plant has been facing several court cases from individuals, organizations and government.  In this context, it is only when Sterlite wanted to expand its operation with a second unit at the cost of Rs. 3500 crore on a 400 acre land that the residents demanded t he closure of the plant.  The protest movement went for the past 100 days, following which the protestors announced that they would take out a march to Tuticorin district collectorate on May 22.  Police resorted to the worst kind of lathi charge and opened fire that killed 11 of the protestors immediately and two of them later.   

Issues arising out of the shooting of innocent people in Tuticorin

Why were the peaceful protestors shot and why were there no warnings and procedure followed before the shooting had taken place? 

Fact finding teams have clearly indicated that long time activists have been targeted and they were eliminated through this shooting.

Why was a young girl shot for no reason?  This is nothing but extrajudicial killing.  Bystanders were shot and killed to create fear among the people.   

The police armed with SLR (Self-Loading Rifle) used assault rifles to shoot at protesters.  The police did not use gradation of tactics strategy like giving warnings, engage them through dialogue, water cannon and rubber bullets, but they resorted to shooting directly and that too with the aim of killing the protestors.   

The FIR copy made available after the shooting had taken place gives the name of the person who gave the shooting order.  Shockingly it was the Deputy Tahsildar who has given the shooting order.  Only the district collector, in consultation with the district magistrate and SP, can give shooting orders when all other means fail. 

Protestors were projected as people who set fire on vehicles and police station.  The fact finding groups and others who witnessed ‘Jallikattu’ agitation in Chennai in 2017 are aware that in order to disperse the peaceful protestors, the police themselves were seen setting fire to autos, police station etc.  Looks like the same strategy has been used in Tuticorin too but the blame was on people for creating lawlessness.    

The protest from the beginning has been portrayed as a Christian-backed one.  Just because the majority of the fishermen are Christians, it should not be projected as a Christian led protest.  It is a movement of the people of Tuticorin irrespective of caste and religion. It is an agitation where people are fighting for their livelihood and for clear air and water. 

The Constitution of India guarantees under its fundamental duties, the right of every citizen to protect the environment but the citizens received bullets for carrying out their duty against a corporate giant who is determined to pollute their air and water.    

(The writer is Senior Fellow at the Loyola Institute of Social Science Training and Research, Loyola College, Chennai. Contact: bernarddsami@gmail.com)

(Published on 04th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 23)