Fear and loathing in troubled Thoothukudi
A protest at MGR Park marked the beginning of a movement that has reached a point where the Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi faces a question of survival
Thoothukudi (Tamil Nadu): Irony rules in Thoothukudi.
“Four hundred beds (worth Rs50 lakh) in this hospital were sponsored by Sterlite Industries,” reads a plaque, written in Tamil, on the wall facing the entrance to the fifth floor of the Government Medical College and Hospital in Thoothukudi.
Three dozen beds on this floor are now occupied by those who have been wounded in the protest over the past four days, demanding the government shut the copper plant run by Sterlite Industries, about 10 km from the port town in Tamil Nadu.
“They (Sterlite) made sure the beds come to be used,” says a person who introduces himself by his first name, Rajkumar, directing his right hand to the board, with irony.
“The company should give something for the city’s burial ground. May be coffins?” adds the 32-year-old, who works as an administrator in a private medical dispensary and lives in Kumarattiyapuram village, a hamlet of 500 people.
For those living north of Bengaluru, Thoothukudi—also called Tuticorin—is a coastal and an industrial town, about 600km south-west of Chennai. The city’s V.O.Chidambaranar Port is the state’s second largest port and the fourth largest container terminal in the country.
Sterlite Copper has a 400,000 tonnes-a-year copper plant built over 250 acres, and the plant is run by Sterlite Industries Ltd , a unit of Vedanta Ltd, which is a subsidiary of London-based Vedanta Resources Plc. Billionaire businessman Anil Agarwal owns Vedanta, and the Sterlite unit in Thoothukudi plans to double its production output by 2019. Earlier this year, Sterlite started work to expand its current facility on the 300 acres of additional land allotted to the company in 2008, although the plans have now been put on hold by a Madras high court order.
A group of 25,000 protesters had on 22 May assembled to oppose the plant on grounds of alleged pollution, as they have been doing for two decades.
The protests reportedly turned violent, forcing police to fire into the crowds on 22-23 May. All of last week, the town remained shut as cat-and-mouse skirmishes between protestors and police left 13 people dead and over 120 injured.
The state’s nodal pollution control body, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, ordered the plant shut and even discontinued power supply. The Union environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, has promised to look into the issue. On 28 May, the Tamil Nadu government ordered the Sterlite copper plant closed permanently. The development has led many to now question if Sterlite will ever be able to restart its operations in Thoothukudi. The firm has the option to challenge the closure in a court.
“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,” Vedanta said in a statement on Monday.
Vedanta Resources and its subsidiaries have repeatedly been pulled up by authorities in India and elsewhere for disregarding environmental safeguards and violating human rights. In 2004, it failed to get environmental clearance for a planned bauxite mine in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills, considered sacred by the local tribals. In 2014, the Supreme Court quashed all mining licences in Goa to put an end to illegal mining, impacting, among others, Sesa Goa (now Vedanta Ltd), which mined about a quarter of the state’s annual iron-ore production. The company’s other subsidiaries, Hindustan Zinc and BALCO, also have cases against them for workers’ deaths at a power plant in Chhattisgarh and for illegal mining of rock phosphate, respectively.
Protestors in Thoothukudi are contemplating moving UK courts against Vedanta, based on a recent move by Zambian villagers affected by Vedanta’s copper smelter who have successfully argued for the right to sue the firm in its home country for environmental transgressions overseas.
Labour MP John McDonnell has called for Vedanta to be delisted from the London Stock Exchange, thus depriving it of its “cloak of acceptability”.
“I believe there is widespread support for delisting the company and I will support the campaigners taking this matter to court,” McDonnell told Mint. “I have raised concerns about this company before, by supporting the campaign by the London Mining Group, which is a campaigning body highlighting the impact of mining companies on human rights and the environment. I have also sought to amend legislation in this country to ensure the track record of companies like this is taken into account when applying for listing on the London Stock Market.”
India is no stranger to industrial disputes: from Maruti Suzuki India Ltd’s labour strife in Manesar in 2005 to Tata Motors Ltd’s troubles in building its Nano cars in West Bengal in 2008, the country has witnessed many conflicts. However, unlike in the case of Maruti, Sterlite’s troubles are not with its 3,500 employees. Neither is this conflict about land, as in the case of Tata’s Nano project. This clash between Sterlite and the people of Thoothukudi is more layered and complicated, with issues related to greed, environment, health, and the company’s engagement with local communities. Worryingly, there are no clear answers to this impasse.
This numbing pain
It’s 9.40 am on 24 May. Vijay Kumar, 25, recovering from a bullet wound to his right thigh, is one of the 36 wounded on the fifth floor of the government hospital.
The bullet has fractured his bone.
“I was not part of it (the rally on 22 May). I was standing near a shop on the main highway. And then suddenly, I felt this numbing pain, like someone had chopped off my leg. I fell down immediately and saw people around me crying out for help,” recounts Kumar.
Kumar is lucky he was not among the 11 who died on that day to what now has been described by activists as a wild and frenzied killing spree by the police.
That morning, based on multiple eye-witness accounts, a crowd numbering at least 25,000 started a rally, from the western tip of the city, the Beach road, demanding shutdown of the Sterlite copper plant, citing irreparable harm to their health and to the local environment. “Every second household in the town has a cancer patient,” says Prince Cardoza, a city-based businessman who owns a shipping and logistics firm and is a supporter of the Anti-Sterlite Struggle Federation. “Sterlite has made this city unlivable.”
The protesters marched through the 7km stretch to reach the district collector’s office on the north side of national highway 7A, taking an hour to do so. At around noon, even as the protestors marched on the 18 ft wide entrance road leading up to the collector’s office, a group of 50-60 people stormed the residential building that houses the staff of Sterlite Industries.
A 10ft wide drain separates the district collector’s office from the Sterlite housing compound. The residential compound, built over an area of 40,000 sq. ft, comprises six buildings of four floors each. Each floor has four two-bedroom apartments. A small children’s park, called Heritage Park, separates the highway and the residential complex. The small crowd turned violent and started pelting stones at the windows.
Some gunshots were fired in the air, suggesting that a few people in the crowd may have been armed even as another 8-10 people started to light fires at multiple places in the compound. “It was a small group that went just mad. They fired a few rounds. They went in and came out quickly,” says Cardoza, who claims he was told about the events by a friend present at the place.
Cardoza says he cannot think of a reason for this group’s alleged aggression, speculating it had probably been infiltrated by individuals paid by some people to give a bad name to the people’s movement against Sterlite. “We earlier had a meeting when over 100,000 people met. Then there was no violence. This time we are sure people from Sterlite paid some people to get into the rally and did all this firing to give it a bad name,” said Cardoza.
On Thursday, all the apartments inside the residential complex looked abandoned. Just two towels and a shirt hung on a wire in the balcony of a second-floor apartment. Homes on even the third floor have broken windows, and the charred walls are an reminder of what happened a few days earlier. Thursday was the third straight day when all shops remained shut, with prohibitory orders in force.
It is 7.30 am on Thursday and the street wears a desolate look. Roads are heavily barricaded, with police deployed on both sides of roads. The state has stopped internet services in the district of Thoothukudi—nobody can access emails or even navigate in the city using Google Maps.
Not even the customary shops offering morning coffee or cigarettes are open.
“We have 25,000 shops in the town and neighbouring villages which support this movement,” says S. Raja, leader of the Thoothukudi Merchants Association. “So there is no question of any unhappiness among owners. We have a simple slogan: Ban Sterlite, Save Thoothukudi.”
The Sterlite plant, 6km from the city, remains shut and is guarded by policemen. A tire repair shop outside the plant is open but not for business. The owner has opened up his makeshift, one-room shop to police, offering water and a place to relax.
So, how did the town come to this?
According to Rajkumar and activist Fathima Babu, about 350 people from Kumarattiyapuram village in mid-January first noticed containers and building materials being moved into a piece of land adjoining the smelter. “The angry villagers from Kumarattiyapuram and activists and all interested parties met with the collector on 5 February. But as expected, the meeting did not yield any results. So on 12 February, the villagers decided to hold a morning-to-evening fast at the VVD junction in the city. Later at night, the 350 villagers refused to get up when police asked them to. Instead, the people moved into the nearby MGR Park, also called the Sterlite Park, as it is built and maintained by them, and stayed overnight,” says Fathima Babu, who has championed the Anti-Sterlite Struggle Federation since Sterlite set up the plant in 1996.
MGR Park, named for the larger-than-life actor turned political leader, Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, stands less than 100 metres from the Government Hospital, and to the west of the entrance of a commercial market, Anna Nagar.
A silent protest at the Sterlite Park or the MGR Park on 12 February marked the beginning of the protest movement, which has now reached a point where Sterlite faces a question over its survival.
From 13 February until 23 March, villagers from Kumarattiyapuram sat in groups, in turn, under a Neem tree as a mark of protest against the plant. From 25 March until 20 May, more villages joined in what can be described as a one-of-its-kind of protest, with at least eight villages even getting makeshift tents put up in their settlements to offer space to protestors. People who protested and activists say 24 March is a turning point in the 22-year-old struggle against Sterlite—on the day, over 100,000 people assembled at VVD junction in protest. They had been mobilized by activists who distributed pamphlets with the slogan, “Ban Sterlite, Save Thoothukudi”, among the people in the city. Supporters included the owners of the city’s 25,000 shops, apart from the 15,000-strong fishing community.
Bureaucrats on a visit
It is five minutes past 11 on Thursday morning, and inside the government hospital, a nurse rushes to attend to a patient lying two beds away from Kumar. Two armed cops, and two men wearing grey-coloured khadi suit, both holding bundles of papers and files, escort P.W.C. Davidar and Gagandeep Singh Bedi, senior IAS officers, deputed to Thoothukudi by Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami.
The two bureaucrats visit patients, stopping for about 3-4 minutes by each. Outside, in the hall, howling cries can be heard, even from downstairs. Seven middle-aged women are wailing, as the police start to shove and push some men into a van. These 20-odd men and boys, some as young as 14, were arrested after the violence and brought to the hospital for check-up. On the fifth floor, 15 minutes into the inspection drive by the two bureaucrats, an officer wearing a suit reads something on his cell phone and immediately walks up to Davidar and whispers something in his ear. A moment later, Davidar’s face turns grim. Pushing back his glasses with the tip of his forefinger, he exchanges a few words with Bedi. Had the officials been alerted to the events outside the hospital?
Three police minivans stationed at the entrance to the hospital are now packed with nearly 150 cops. All of them are dressed in riot gear, wearing helmets, carrying sticks and shields. They are part of a cavalcade led by two Tata Sumos, heading to Anna Nagar, the central market which is a stone’s throw from the hospital.
Anna Nagar has a two-way main road, which cuts into many lanes on either side, lined on both sides by shops and commercial establishments. Each side of this road cuts into 12 bylanes, numbered into crosses from 1 to 12. The main road, which had already been barricaded by the cops on Tuesday evening, is filled with stones and shards of broken soft drink bottles, thrown by angry protestors less than an hour ago in the morning. The police cavalcade steers through the road, stopping at various points by burning motorcycles and bundles of cycle tubes, all emitting smoke.
Soon, the vans are emptied and the policemen assembled into three groups, standing at the entrance to the fifth, sixth and seventh cross on the western side of the road. At around noon, three policemen stationed at the seventh cross move down a narrow lane. Barely had they taken a few steps, when 250 metres away from them a man steps out from a building and hurls a petrol bomb at the cops.
A petrol bomb—or Molotov cocktail—is also called a poor man’s grenade and is a crude bomb consisting of a bottle containing petrol and a cloth wick that is ignited just before the bottle is thrown.
Fortunately, the bomb falls short, managing to set on fire a pile of broken furniture lying next to the road. The policemen hurry back even as the man who threw the bomb, dressed in a cream colour shirt and a blue-and-white lungi, dashes in the opposite direction. A police inspector’s walkie talkie crackles to life: a state-transport bus in a bus station in Muthammal Colony has been attacked. The place is just a six-minute drive and, luckily, the bus has not been set on fire. Only the windshield has been shattered by stones. Five buses had already been torched in three days. By 2 pm, more policemen are brought into Anna Nagar and soon, about 800 cops are on duty, according to one inspector.
Are the events playing out on Thursday any different to what the city experienced on Tuesday?
On 22 May, Tuesday, outside the collector’s office, seeing the crowd get into a frenzy, police stationed outside the collector’s office decided to start firing. The crowd did not know that the collector was not in office that day. Over 50 rounds were fired, almost all of them towards people. During the ensuing 20-minute shooting by the police, 10 people died. The 25,000-strong crowd ran back to the city. Protestors set a two-wheeler parking space inside the district collector’s office on fire, broke some of the windows, smashed through the State Bank of India’s money dispensing machine (ATM), and damaged nine police jeeps and Tata Sumos, before overturning them.
Hundreds of cops chased the crowd with their 3 foot-long sticks until they reach the city.
Incident at fishing hamlet
Around 2.30pm, four police groups reach the fishing hamlet in the city and shoot one woman from close range, according to multiple people familiar with the development.
“I believe the reason the police acted in this heavy-handed manner was to teach people a lesson. In fact, I was told a woman in Threspuram was shot by a cop from close range just because she wanted to know why the police were knocking at their doors,” says Babu. Threspuram is the fishing hamlet in Thoothukudi.
P. Ramnath, the chief executive officer of Sterlite Copper, in an interview, said the management was “quite surprised (by the protests)” last week.
“The locals had issues…We said we would discuss across the table. For some reason, extraneous people came in and hijacked these issues,” Ramnath said.
Ramnath’s implication of activists and outsiders is contested by many in the city.
“The difference between earlier years’ struggle and this year’s is that in the past, activists went out and told people about the dangers. This time, it is the villagers who have experienced it for over two decades have come out. It is a people’s movement and we just offered them the support,” says Babu.
“We are looking at the biggest devil. There may be smaller devils but even by filter method, what cannot be denied is that Sterlite is causing maximum damage. We also go by the country’s precautionary principle. We feel rather than forcing people to prove they are not guilty, let us see if Sterlite can prove it is innocent,” says Babu.
“Let us be clear with one thing. We are not expecting governments or courts to help us anymore. The people in Thoothukudi have delivered the message that Sterlite has to go. No question about that. And we remain confident Sterlite will go because people will not rest until then,” says Babu.
Sterlite denies all allegations on flouting environmental laws and the smelter’s alleged health impact on people.
According to Babu, Raja and Cardoza, the movement has kept politicians out. But three other people who attended the meeting with the collector on 5 February pointed to the presence of leaders of small political parties, including Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK founded by Vaiko), Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi and Makkal Adhikaram, a left-leaning group.
Babu, who herself has fought a local election on an MDMK ticket in the past, agrees that representatives of these political groups attended a few meetings.
“But even leaders from opposition parties including the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Tamil Nadu’s chief party of opposition) came on the first day of the protest when we were sitting in the park. But the women drove the leader away,” says Babu. The former district collector N. Venkatesh, who was shunted out by the government on 23 May, declined to comment.
Many aspects of the Thoothukudi incident are troubling, with government officials seemingly going out of their way to conceal facts. Why, in the first instance, did police resort to shooting into the crowd without using alternative crowd dispersal methods?
The authorities remain silent on this, citing an ongoing government investigation, leaving locals furious.
“If Prime Minister Narendra Modi believes Sterlite means development, let him take this plant to Gujarat,” says Raja of the traders association. “Development does not mean it will be at people’s cost.”
It is 8 pm and Anna Nagar has not seen any fresh case of arson. Still, the 800-odd policemen will continue to be stationed at the market.
Rajkumar, who had been at the fifth floor of the hospital all day long, decides to go back to his home in Kumarattiyapuram village. He has barely walked past a police barricade near the gate of MGR Park when a few policemen stop him, and ask for his identification. He is quietly taken away in a police van for questioning, ironical again, as it is from the place where this people’s protest movement started 102 days ago on 12 February.
Tanya Thomas and Dharini Thangavelu contributed this story.