Thoothukudi Turmoil And The Closure Of Sterlite Copper

Published : Jun 01, 2018 08:54 am | By: M D Sridharan

The firing by the Tamil Nadu Police on the raging protestors who demand the closure of Sterlite Copper smelter unit in Thoothukudi, in Tamil Nadu, has created uproar across the nation. 13 people lost their lives and hundreds of people were severely injured. Finally, bowing to pressure the Tamil Nadu government issued orders to close the unit permanently.

May 22, 2018, has been etched in the history of Tamil Nadu as a “black day”.  As the protest demanding the closure of the Sterlite Copper plant in the Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu turned violent, the police resorted to firing in which 13 people died and hundreds of people were severely injured.

The wave of protests gathered strength with the expansion of the plant. The villagers alleged that the company has continued its expansion despite not getting the approval to do so. Though, Sterlite Copper had applied for clearance, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) rejected their application.

The villagers have been protesting since Feburary,2018, demanding the closure of the Sterlite Copper plant in the district.  The villagers wanted the Sterlite’s copper smelting unit in Thoothukudi shut down as it was causing environmental damage to the area. The villagers accused the company of being lax regarding environmental regulations, causing detriment to the health of the locals in and around Thoothukudi. The protest which commenced in a small village close to the plant, slowly and steadily attracted people other villages in the district. Despite gathering in large numbers, the villagers have been protesting in a peaceful manner all these days.


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History of the Protest

Ever since Sterlite Copper was established in 1993, is a subsidiary of London-listed Vedanta group. Vedanta's Sterlite Copper unit, at Tuticorion, Tamil Nadu, has been facing resistance from fishermen’s groups in the area. As the plant began fully operational in 1997, local fishermen’s groups backed by the political parties began agitating against the plant. In order to quell the agitations, the company did recruit people from the community, but it still the people did not stop the protests.

After more than a decade of protests, in September 2010, the protesters knocked the doors of the Madras High Court to shut down the plant. But the Supreme Court stayed the High Court’s order. 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. After the 2013 sulphur dioxide leak in 2013, a similar set of events happened, with the Supreme Court ordering the plant open, but fining them ?100 crore.

The smelter plant at Tuticorin, can produce 400,000 tonnes of copper cathode a year. The company has planned to double capacity at the smelter to 800,000 tonnes per year. On March 27, 2018, the management shut down the plant as part of a 15-day scheduled annual maintenance. During the closure, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) rejected Vedanta's licence to operate the smelter, saying the company had not complied with local environmental laws. As the company challenged the action of TNPCB, the appellate authority of the pollution board has adjourned the next hearing to June 6. The board has accused Sterlite of dumping copper slag in a river and not furnishing reports of groundwater analysis of bore wells near the plant. Earlier, in 2013, the plant remained shut for weeks due to a case at the National Green Tribunal. 

Residents have been agitating for months claiming that the plant has been polluting the groundwater and water level has been depleting fast. It has grossly affected farming and the environment as well.  The district has been witnessing several protests by locals and others against the plant and its proposed expansion. As the protest entered the 100th day on May 22, 2018, the protestors planned to intensify their protest and had announced they would take out a march to the Tuticorin District Collectorate. But and it reached a feverish pitch and turned violent. 

Is the violence premeditated?

Despite the prohibitary order imposed   and permission granted only at the SAV ground near Thoothukudi old bus stand, the protestors paid no heed to the imposition of section 144 and tried to proceed further towards the collectorate.  The protesters gathered in large numbers from various areas breached the barricades and converged at the collectorate. Anticipating trouble, the authorities have deployed over 4,000 police personnel to prevent crowd from entering the collectorate.  But, within hours as the protestors grew in numbers, which official estimates that 20,000 people took to the streets, they clearly outnumbered the police personnel and overpowered the police barricades and personnel as well and entered in to the collectorate. They pelted stones at the police and set fire to the government vehicles parked inside the collectorate. As many as 40 vehicles inside the collectorate have been torched by the unruly mob.

The protesters then started hurling stones and footwear at policemen, who were in riot gear. Tear gas was used to quell the rioting mob, which continued to regroup.  The protestors continued to rampage the collectorate and some miscreants also managed to sneak in to the nearby Sterlite employees’ quarters and threw petrol bombs and set fire to their property forcing the family members to escape to the terrace to save their lives.

In the melee that went on about over four hours, finally the police had to resort to firing in order to bring the situation under control.  13 people, including a 17-year-old girl, were killed in the firing. Besides, over 100 people were injured during clashes between police and protesters.

Why did the Protestors turn violent?

While the villagers have been protesting peacefully for the last 99 days, it is still a mystery that how did they turn absolutely violent on the 100th day. There were reports that minority religion groups and anti-social elements infiltrated the crowd and engaged in arson and violence.  A video that went on social media clearly shows a section of people armed with deadly weapons are being flushed out by the police from a nearby church. The video also piles of stones were stocked inside the room in the church. Besides, there were reports about naxalite groups infiltrated and instigated the protestors. While it is clear that the state intelligence has erred and failed to give a clear picture about the 100th day protests, the fact remains that the government did not anticipate that 20,000 to 30,000 people will assemble and also the protest will turn violent.

Indeed, the death of civilians drew nationwide attention and the entire opposition leaders excoriated the AIADMK government along with the Centre.  While, the entire opposition parties condemned the police firing and criticised the government action and demanded that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami should resign. But, Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami defended the actions of the police saying that the cops resorted to firing only as a last resort in order to disperse the crowd  and control  the violence the as the crowd went berserk and  became uncontrollable. The Chief Minister also pointed out that the increasing violence posed a threat to the public and accused "some anti-social elements" of infiltrating the agitation, attacking the police, and setting their vehicles ablaze. He also said during the violent incidents, as many as 72 police personnel suffered severe injuries. He squarely blamed "some" opposition parties and leaders, saying they instigated the protesters. Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami has also ordered a retired judge to probe into the incident.

The opposition parties are politicising the issue further for their own political mileage.  Assuming, that the police had not gone for firing order,  taking in to account of the violent mood of the protestors many common people would have died and number could been much more than 13. This is not to justify the firing. Despite what the police did is against moral standards, the fact remains that at times the police have to take some tough decisions and act to limit the damage both the life and the properties.

Closure of the plant and its impact

Couple of days after the horrific firing, bowing to growing political pressure and people’s sentiment, the Tamil Nadu government ordered closure of Sterlite Copper plant. Accordingly, based on the GO issued by the State environment department, a team of revenue officials led by Tuticorin district collector sealed the premises.

While the people welcomed the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to "permanently" close Vedanta's 22-year-old copper plant, several industry bodies have slammed the action and termed it as a "knee-jerk reaction". Industry associations in Tamil Nadu have voiced their concern over the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to shutdown Sterlite Copper.  

Considering the prevailing political scenario in Tamil Nadu and the fact that the industries have been marred by a serious of protests across the state over various issues,  it has already lead to the situation that will force many prominent industrialists who had planned to invest heavily in Tamil Nadu d to reconsider their decision. They pointed out that the growing trend of opposing every industrial project in Tamil Nadu, one of the few States that led industrialisation in the country, has really affected the overall reputation of the state.

With regard to the pollution issue at the Sterlite smelter unit, the industry bodies point their fingers at the government saying the for the past 20 years  both the DMK and AIADMK have been lackadaisical about the environmental issues and continue to ignore the same. They said that it is the government’s prerogative to take proper steps to ensure that the environment is protected and the people are not affected. But, lack of stricter enforcement of law to protect the environment has finally lead to massive agitation by the villagers.  

Still, the industry bodies are firm that the closure of a factory is not a solution to such problems. They categorically mention that such acts will only ruin the overall image of the state. They pointed out that especially, at a time when the state government has planned to organise International Investors Meet in Chennai in Jan, 2019, the government decision to shutdown Sterlite Copper in Tuticorin, will dent the overall image of Tamil Nadu as a industry friendly state and many industrialists will now hesitate to invest in Tamil Nadu which will in turn lead to unemployment and affect the overall economy of Tamil Nadu. .

The industry associations in Chennai have come down severely on the Tamil Nadu government’s order to shut Sterlite Copper’s smelter plant at Tuticorin. Chemical Industries Association (CIA) and Winding Wire Manufacturers Association (WWMAI) have hit the nail on the head.  “The present agitation against Sterlite Copper appears to be another instance of whipping up passion against project unjustifiably,” Chemical Industries Association (CIA) said its appeal to the State government. 

The officials from the associations have appealed to the state government that the permanent closure of the factory at Thoothukudi will not only affect the livelihood of thousands of people, but also cause hardship to small industries in the State, There are more than 1,000 people directly employed in the Sterlite smelter unit and another 1,000 contract labourers are engaged by the company. Besides, there are hundreds of small units functioning in and around Thoothukudi who are dependents of the by-products of Sterlite and hundreds of labourers depend on these small units for existence.

The shutting down of Sterlite’s copper plant, which is producing about 45 per cent of the country’s copper output, changes the demand-supply dynamics in the domestic copper market that could escalate the metal’s domestic prices. “Sterlite Copper was meeting more than 50 per cent of our domestic requirement. The sudden closure of the factory has resulted in huge loss to winding wire industry and has also affected the production of electrical and electronic components,” WWMAI stated in a letter to the Chief Minister.

CIA explained that due to the recent closure of Sterlite, price of sulphuric acid has increased three-fold and chemical units are facing hardship. It may even lead to the closure of small units. “If it remains closed, the industry will be forced to import copper at five per cent above the domestic prices, which will have huge cost implications for the units,” it added. CIA also questioned why only Sterlite unit was being opposed while all other sulphuric acid plants in Tamil Nadu were operating smoothly without any protest. Also, the closure of Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi has dealt a severe blow to the pump set manufacturing industry in Coimbatore.  Copper is one of the main raw materials used for making pump sets and it accounts for 70 per cent share in the manufacturing process. Now, with the Sterlite plant closed, the demand for copper has gone up.

The Tuticorin Stevedores’ Association, which handles manual cargo at the V O Chidambaranar Port Trust in Tuticorin, has also appealed to the chief minister to take steps to resume copper production at the plant. TSA , in its appeal stated that  Sterlite was the single-largest private company handling a consistent annualised volume of about 38 lakh metric tonnes of cargo and the  closure of the plant has adversely impact thousands of workers as  freight operators, drivers and workers  and hundreds of  small factories that depend on the plant for their business. 

It is time that the ruling AIADMK government should take a leaf out of former chief minister J.Jayalalitha’s rule book and act with “iron fist” to control anti-social elements and religious fringe groups in order to restore peace in Tamil Nadu and pave way for industrial growth and employment.

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