Police baton charge at protestors who were demanding the closure of Sterlite Copper unit in Tuticorin. Tamil Nadu chief minister K. Palaniswami has stated in the assembly and to media that the shooting during Sterlite protests was ‘unavoidable’. Photo: PTI
Police baton charge at protestors who were demanding the closure of Sterlite Copper unit in Tuticorin. Tamil Nadu chief minister K. Palaniswami has stated in the assembly and to media that the shooting during Sterlite protests was ‘unavoidable’. Photo: PTI

Tamil Nadu needs to fix its human rights response

This is about the why and why-not of it, and of how human rights is as much a responsibility of governments as it is of businesses

The human rights spectacle around the shooting by police on 21 May that killed 13 in the port town of Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, and injured more than a hundred, has reached epic proportions. This is about the why and why-not of it, and of how human rights is as much a responsibility of governments as it is of businesses.

Sterlite Copper Ltd’s plant, against which protesters had marched, alleging pollution, and collusion with government had enabled this Vedanta Resources Plc operation to announce a doubling of production, was formally sealed on 28 May by the local administration. Land allocated for that expansion by the state’s industry facilitator, SIPCOT, is now withdrawn by the agency. Sterlite Copper will on 6 June expect to hear from an appellate tribunal in Chennai of its plea to grant the factory a “consent to operate", which wasn’t renewed by government in March.

Meanwhile, there is much discussion and commotion in Tamil Nadu’s assembly as opposition parties tear into the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), alleging its hand in the fracas on 21 May. Chief minister K. Palaniswami has stated, in the assembly and to media, that the shooting was “unavoidable".

That is nonsense. As with most such instances, it was entirely avoidable. The protest against Sterlite was not war, it was at worst a cause for dialogue. It was also a time for business to demonstrate that “human resource" extends beyond the narrow confines of a corporate culture to truly include the communities in whose midst, it operates. And, for government to demonstrate that its charter for citizens doesn’t include killing, injuring, beating and arresting people for voicing opinion, however unpalatable it may be to a particular business model, policy imperative, or quid pro quo.

Palaniswami’s statements, and the government’s knee-jerk reaction to close down Sterlite’s plant that followed knee-jerk action, are clearly face-saving gestures. What Tamil Nadu needs to fix, much like several other states including Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and West Bengal which have unlovely histories of overkill related to business, is its human rights response.

There are numerous instances of overkill across India, a few of which have been recorded by this column. I’m still struck by cases against protesters in Odisha who continue to stand against Tata Steel and its plant in Kalinganagar, who still continue to carry the flame for more than a dozen killed in 2006 by Odisha’s police when they protested the government and company’s method of taking possession of land for the plant, and other matters.

Leaders of the protest and others were booked for several crimes under the Indian Penal Code. These ranged from “joining an unlawful assembly armed with a deadly weapon" to “wrongful confinement" and “criminal intimidation" to the bizarre accusations of performing “obscene acts and songs" and circulating counterfeit coins.

Tamil Nadu’s own history of complicity and overkill is remarkable. The nuclear power plant in Kudankulam, south of Thoothukudi, is one such cause célèbre. In September 2012, when AIADMK ran the government, police waded into crowds of protesters, mostly farmers and fisherfolk concerned about a Fukushima-like future in their neighbourhood. Several protesters, including women, died; many were injured; and a church was desecrated.

Cases were filed by the state against protest leaders and villagers of Kudankulam, Idinthakarai, Kuthenkazhi, Perumanal and Kootapuli. As tabulated by a legal defence team, there were 19 cases of sedition involving 8,450 people; 19 cases of waging war against the state involving 18,350 people; 15 cases of attempt to murder against 18,143 people; and so on. In all, over 300 cases involving a staggering 120,000 people.

This remains standard operating procedure in the course of even peaceful protests related to human rights violations, and, specifically, for issues of land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation, and pollution.

There will be little remedy, in form and substance, until governments truly govern, until human rights enters the lexicon of business as usual.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include “Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India", “Red Sun “and “Highway 39". This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

Close