TN Govt shuts down Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi, but for protesters, the fight has just begun

After the initial euphoria of victory over ‘permanent closure’ of Vedanta Limited’s Sterlite Copper Smelter Plant in Tuticorin, protesters are wondering if it indeed meant the permanent exit of their tormentor – a plant that polluted their lives for over three decades, writes BHAVANI KUCHI

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The cocky confidence of the  management that it will take legal recourse perhaps has its basis in the fact that it has seen four such closures in the past and re-opened just like it was business as usual. At one time, even the Supreme Court fined the company 100 crore but allowed it to continue operations.

But, this time around, with blood of 13 protesters on its hands, albeit indirectly, the company sure does tread on a dangerous path as not many political parties at this stage would like to be seen on the right side of the plant that devoured the lives of innocent protesters — of course, at the hands of the police who appeared to be shooting to kill rather than shooting to bring a “mob” under control.

On  May 28, Toothukudi collector Sandip Nanduri oversaw the sealing of the company amid whistles, cheers and claps by the protesters. He had the company premises within minutes of GO, directing the permanent closure of the company even as the Tuticorin town was limping back to normalcy.

The protest this time around was over the Sterlite plant’s announcement of doubling its capacity and size of the plant, and hence the doubling of the danger it posed to the well-being of the people living in the vicinity. With reports of cancer among villagers, the slogan “Copper for Sterlite, Cancer for People” became a rallying cry for the villages around the SIPCOT complex in Toothukudi. In fact, Sterlite agitation began way back in 1994 in A Kumareddiyapuram. But the fear of expansion of the plant sparked off fresh agitation as in the perception of the villagers, the plant would pollute the environment further. The agitation slowly attracted people from South Veerapandiapuram, Pandarampatti, Silverpuram, Madathur, Meelavittan, Ayyanadaippu, Sankaraperi and Mappillaiyoorani. These villages are situated close to Sterlite Copper plant, where people suffer from respiratory diseases, birth of children with congenital disorders and increased instances of miscarriage. The villagers suspect liquid and gaseous effluents discharged from the copper-manufacturing unit to be the cause. And this anxiety, fear and anger brought the people together against the mega-project.”

There is no doubt, said environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman that the police were brutal and decisive and determined to instil fear among the protesters and shot to kill them rather than shooting below the waist as is mandatory.

“Supreme sacrifice of the 13 villagers, shot and killed by police, will not go in vain,” Jayaraman said, adding that the Vedanta group was notorious for flouting environmental norms wherever it operated in the past. “We hope this closure is really permanent. We have seen in the past closures and reopening,” said S Raja, a member of the Tuticorin traders’ association.

The decision to close the plant came after the government lost the war of public perception and with assembly session commencing, it was sure to face more negative publicity with the opposition DMK moving in for the kill. It is to blunt the opposition onslaught rather than a will to care for the people and address their grievances that the Edapaddi Palaniswami government took the final call. Besides, the public perception was also going against the Centre and the BJP, which many believe in Tamil Nadu are back-seat driving the Tamil Nadu government.

The TN government failed to come out with satisfactory explanation of why snipers and police personnel armed with automatic assault rifles were let loose on civilian protesters. Human rights activists asked why standard operating procedures were not followed and why police aimed and shot at the protesters, in chest and face, as if to kill them.

It was after six days of the killings that junior officials owned up to ordering police firing, indicating a clear cover-up of the incident ahead of the assembly session.

Sekar, a deputy Tahsildar was among the few officials who filed an FIR at Tuticorin on May 22, the day of firing itself, detailing as to what led to his decision to order firing. He insisted that all the usual standard procedures were followed and only when everything else failed, firing order was given. Though there are not many takers for this version, as the victims of the police excesses and brutality cornered deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam when he went to visit them at Tuticorin government hospital. He was put through a Spanish inquisition, indicating the anger of the people against the government and all it represents. Sceptics also wondered if the SP would follow the orders of a junior administrator like a tahsildar and carry out firing on protesters.

The government in its order said the TN pollution board had not renewed the consent to Ms Vedanta Limited to operate its Copper Smelter Plant. Subsequently, after the protests and killing the board issued closure notice and stoppage of power supply to the plant on May 24. In the closure order, the government said, “The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. Under Sections 18(1) (b) of the Water Act, 1974 in the larger public interest, the government endorse the closure direction of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and also direct the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to seal the unit and close the plant permanently.”

But the cocky confidence of Vedanta Limited and its reactions on the Government order directing a permanent closure of the plant in Tuticorin is something that the protesters and activists worry about and has the DMK working president MK Stalin reading a hidden message of the government to the management to “now go and get court orders against this.”

Stalin described the government order as a ‘drama’ and an ‘eyewash.’ If this decision had been taken without the ‘killing’ of 13 lives, the government’s good intention could have been appreciated. But that was not the case and this laid bare the government’s real concerns and its ulterior motives, Stalin said, echoing the sentiments of other opposition leaders as well. Earlier, in 2013 too, the government ’s decision to close the Sterlite plant was an ‘eyewash,’ he said.

But Rajinikanth, actor-turning to politics, described the closure order as a victory. The company for the record said, “closure of Sterlite Copper plant is an unfortunate development, especially since, we have operated the plant for over 22 years in most transparent and sustainable way, contributing to the Tuticorin and State’s socio-economic development. We will study the order and decide on the future course of action.”

Legal experts were divided in their opinion on the maintainability of the government order that was issued without following due procedures and said the courts granting relief to the ‘aggrieved’ company was a real possibility too.

Environmental lawyer MC Mehta felt that the TN government had slept over for many years and acted only when there was bloodshed. But, the pollution board, former solicitor general, Mohan Parasaran, felt exercised its powers after complying with the “due process requirements.” The industry though it adds to economic activity has no right to destroy ecology, degrade the environment and pose a health hazard.

Experts agree that if the Tamil Nadu Board’s closure order is challenged in court, the test would be whether the principles of natural justice were observed by the Board before the exercise of its power.

But for industrialists across the state, it is akin to the Nandigram moment after TN government ordered a permanent shutdown of Sterlite plant at Tuticorin. This is one decision that can hurt the case of Tamil Nadu when investors gather for the Global Investors’ Meet in 2019. Instead of closing the company down, the government should have come out with alternative arrangements so that the interests of all the stakeholders were served. But now who will look after the people who lose jobs at Sterlite factory, questioned an industrialist, a member of a chamber preferring anonymity. For sure, the confidence of the industry is dented.

Industrialists, already wary of coming to Tamil Nadu, would prefer not coming here at all as the Sterlite affairs send out a big negative signal to investors, rued another industrialist.

The industry is of the opinion that a commercial issue was politicised and the company, even if erring, was given death sentence. Now the country will have to import copper, he said.

In fact, Sterlite Copper plant executives were fearing that the protests were not going to be peaceful and felt that ‘external forces’ could incite people of Tuticorin. But as the company can hardly exit the state, it will fight it out legally. So, the last on the matter has not yet been heard and the issue will be battled out in courts, here in Tamil Nadu and at the Apex court in New Delhi.

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