Thoothukudi Sterlite Protests: How Things Got This Far 

  • How the protest in Thoothukudi against Sterlite copper plant went out of hand.
  • Here’s a look the sequence of events.
  • M R SubramaniWednesday, May 23, 2018 5:10 pm IST
    Protests demanding closure of Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi in front of the factory’s gate.
    Protests demanding closure of Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi in front of the factory’s gate.

    On Tuesday, 11 people were killed and scores injured after police fired at protesters –who turned violent and began attacking government, police and private properties. They were demanding the closure of the UK-based Vedanta Resources’ Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi.

    Other opposition parties, led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), were quick to attack the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government of Edappadi K Palaniswamy for ordering the police firing, trying to hide facts that they too have been responsible for the issue escalating to such a level.

    To add to it, there was this unfortunate tweet by Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

    Gandhi calls the violence as state-sponsored terrorism in his English tweet, and his Tamil tweet says people in the city were ‘shot’ by bullets of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Can there be something more misleading than this?

    A look at the events that have unfolded right from the time Sterlite got the environmental clearance to start operations in Thoothukudi will show that Congress, DMK and AIADMK as being responsible for the current state of affairs.

    When the locals protested in 1994 after Sterlite got the ‘no objection’ clearance from the Tamil Nadu Environment Department, the protests were crushed by the then AIADMK government led by J Jayalalithaa.

    In October 1996, when the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board allowed Sterlite to start production, it was the DMK under its veteran leader M Karunanidhi which was in power. Sterlite was allowed to go on stream without the mandatory review of the plant’s impact on environment being done. Protests broke out then, too, but the current DMK legislative assembly member, Geetha Jeevan’s father, Periyasamy’s manoeuvres ensured that the plant operated without any problem. At the Centre, H D Deve Gowda headed the Third Front government supported by the Congress then.

    In 1998, the Madras High Court stayed the plant’s operation, saying that it had not met a single condition of conserving the environment. The court’s order was based on a review undertaken by the Nagpur-based National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). However, the High Court ordered NEERI to conduct another review after 10 days and allowed the copper plant to operate. NEERI then came out with a review giving a clean chit to the plant. The controversial journey continued.

    In 2004, a review committee of the Madras High Court opposed expansion of Sterlite capacity to 70,000 tonnes a year. But the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Manmohan Singh gave the go-ahead for the expansion. DMK’s A Raja was heading the Environment Ministry then. Until the UPA government was sworn-in, P Chidambaram, who held portfolios of Home and Finance Ministries in the UPA government from 2004-2014, was a board member of Vedanta, the parent company of Sterlite Copper.

    In 2007, Sterlite got an “in principle” clearance from the Manmohan Singh government to expand its capacity to 4.2 lakh tonnes a year. In 2009, the company got the environment clearance for the expansion.

    In a twist of events, the Madras High Court stayed Sterlite’s operations in 2010 for violation of environmental norms. The company then went to the Supreme Court in appeal and the High Court order was stayed. This allowed the company to continue operations. In its final order in 2013, the Supreme Court found substance in the charges of violation of environmental norms against the firm. It imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore on Sterlite and allowed it to continue operations.

    The DMK and AIADMK have ensured that Sterlite continued operations despite violations, including the plant producing more than double the approved capacity. The company is liable to be shut for not sticking to permitted norms but both the parties’ governments shut their eyes to the violations.

    Last year, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) found the plant 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).

    A show-cause notice was issued to Sterlite in April last year and a petition filed in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to stay the plant’s operations in June 2017. The case was dismissed by the NGT. A petition filed in the Supreme Court against the ruling is pending.

    The fresh round of protests began in February this year when Vedanta set out to implement its expansion plans. On 22 May, protesters wanted to mark the hundredth day after the protests were launched. They wanted to take out a procession to the Thoothukudi collectorate and when the police tried to stop them, all hell broke loose.

    The protesters set vehicles on fire, including that of the police, attempted to ransack the collector’s office and entered the quarters which housed employees of the copper plant. The violence resulted in police firing and the death of 11 people.

    But, why did the protests turn violent?

    Indications were plenty that violence was being planned on 22 May, starting with a petition filed by Vedanta in the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court on 16 May. Vedanta pleaded that prohibitory orders under Section 144 CrPC be enforced over a one km radius of the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi. The company said that some organisations were planning to unleash violence on 22 May and hence it was seeking a remedy.

    On 18 May, the High Court agreed with the petitioners and said that chances of the protests being peaceful on 22 May were remote. The High Court bench found the advertisements inviting participations in the protests provocative and agreed with the petitioner that prohibitory orders should be introduced around the Sterlite copper plant premises.

    On 20 May, Thoothukudi district officials, headed by sub-collector M S Prashanth and Superintendent of Police P Mahendran held talks with various organisations to drop the move to storm the collectorate.

    While most of the organisations that made up the forum against Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi boycotted the meeting, 22 other organisations, including from trade and businesses, attended.

    All those who attended the meeting agreed to hold the protests at S A V High School and disperse instead of converging on the collectorate. Since one of its leaders, Fathima Babu, took part in the meeting, the forum expelled her and resolved to go ahead with its plan to storm the collector’s office. Following this, police arrested eight people including Fathima Babu, as a precautionary measure. But they didn’t arrest anyone from organisations such as Makkal Adhigaram (People’s Rights), Puratchi Illaignar Munnani (Revolutionary Youth Front) – naxals have reportedly penetrated in these organisations ­­– and Naam Tamizhar.

    Churches in Thoothukudi also had a role in the protests getting out of hand. The churches had appealed to its members to support the protests to mark the hundredth day of the launch of the move to shut the copper plant. The Church of the Lady of Snow in Thoothukudi, to which many fishermen are attached, had asked them to assemble in front of the premises on Tuesday morning.

    At least 5,000 people gathered before the church to march to the collector’s office and members of Makkal Adhigaram and Puratchi Makkal Munnai mixed themselves among those who had gathered.

    Protesters launched their march from four places in Thoothukudi. The first was headed by DMK member of legislative assembly from Thoothukudi, Geetha Jeevan. She and her followers were stopped at the fourth gate of Sterlite and arrested. Another group, mainly villagers, began a march from Madathur village but police were successful in stopping them.

    The trouble started from the group that began marching from the Church of The Lady of Snow with the number of people swelling to nearly 10,000 at one point of time. The procession was stopped by a police official near the Food Corporation of India warehouse but the crowd pushed aside the police and began marching ahead. The crowd got worked up and headed to the collectorate before setting on fire government vehicle in the premises. The police gathered in strength by then and began to retaliate.

    A mob in the crowd, comprising nearly 250, then stormed the Sterlite employees’ quarters nearby and set on fire the vehicles there. When fire engines from the plant were called for extinguishing the blaze, the mob stopped and set them on fire. It took over four hours to bring the situation under control, leaving Thoothukudi look like a war zone.

    It is important to note that while the protests have been taking place since February, on 10 April the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board rejected Sterlite’s application for renewal of consent to operate the copper plant. The Madras High Court on Wednesday (23 May) stayed the expansion of the plant, citing the outbreak of violence.

    There are a couple of points to ponder on the violence that occurred in the city. The Intelligence Bureau in Tamil Nadu shared details of violence being planned by the forum, especially the Makkal Adhigaram and Puratchi Makkal Munnai organisations on 22 May. Naxals in the form of cadre of these organisations penetrated deeply in the protests against the Sterlite plant and police were tipped off on their plans to wreak havoc.

    State intelligence officials also reported to the Director General of Police, K Rajendran, who supervises the intelligence wing operations, and Chief Minister Palaniswamy, that protesters were planning to unleash violence. In these circumstances, why were police allowed to be outnumbered on 22 May morning? There were hardly 1,500 policemen to take on a crowd that was over 10,000.

    Second, some of those who died had bullet marks in their chest and face. Why did the police not resort to the standard practice of firing from a lying prone position? Were enough warnings given before the firing? When there was widespread fears that the protests would take an ugly turn and instances were pointed out, including by Swarajya, about how the developments ran parallel to the jallikattu protests in Chennai during January 2017, why didn’t the state government act?

    The probe into the jallikattu protests is yet to be completed despite the deadline being over a year and half ago. But to begin with, why should Tamil Nadu or its people tolerate organisations like Makkal Adhigaram, May 17 and Puratchi Illaignar Munnani in which Naxals have gained roots? Why are these organisations not being banned?

    Now that the Tamil Nadu government has ordered an investigation by a retired judge and the Centre seeking a report on the incident, more light will likely be shed on the turn of events.

    Until then, leaders like Rahul Gandhi would be better off reading the history of the plant than finding ways and means to mislead people and score cheap political points.

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