Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Anti-Sterlite stir: Vedanta, TN govt must make amends

While plant's reopening will ignite protests, pushing for expansion will be suicidal

As Mint has reported, in December three major developments took place in the matter of Sterlite Copper’s closed plant in Thoothukudi in south-eastern Tamil Nadu. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed the state’s government to reopen the plant that was sealed on 28 May by the local administration. Autopsy reports of 13 protesters killed by police over 22-23 May as a demonstration against the plant turned violent, show deliberate intent to kill—as demonstrated at the time by at least one newspaper and a video news provider. And, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has begun its work to probe the incident in which several hundred protesters were also injured.

I cannot pre-empt or predict CBI’s conclusions but, beyond the matter of shoot-to-kill and how the events in May unfolded, is the matter of Sterlite’s position in relation to a government that ordered violence to quell violence. The local administration claimed that protesters ignored orders banning their march, became violent, and indulged in arson and stone-pelting. The police were compelled to shoot at a crowd estimated to be 20,000.

It is unclear as to how the situation was permitted to spiral out of control. When the protest is against a particular plant, reaching out to protesters and locals is the necessary function of Sterlite, a business of Vedanta Resources Plc, the local administration, and the state government.

In May, Tamil Nadu chief minister K. Palaniswami told the assembly as well as the media that the shooting was “unavoidable". In an interview with Business Today right after news of deaths and injuries came in, Sterlite Copper’s chief executive officer P. Ramnath said he “totally" regretted what had happened, that “It was totally uncalled for and is really unfortunate". However, he undercut the pathos with repeated reference to “nefarious elements" and also introduced conspiracy (“… perhaps infiltration of a number of nefarious elements, who probably had their own interests and it all took a violent turn, which we completely regret..".)

Whatever the merits of Ramnath’s comments, Palaniswami’s response was untenable. As with most such instances, violence was entirely avoidable. Even if, as Ramnath claimed, one “faction" of protesters had agreed to dialogue and another did not, and went ahead with protests that centred around a clearance by the state’s pollution control board to double production of Sterlite copper smelter to 800,000 tonnes a year. In several tense situations, police have fired in the air, used tear gas, but evidence of kill-first-ask-questions-later shared by media sits poorly, whatever the provocation.

This is the universe of a community having every right to protest, seek answers and redress, and a business that has every right to do business according to the law of the land, in compliance with human rights, a position that also extends to the government.

It isn’t as if there were no grounds for concern at the expansion. Though Sterlite maintains it followed all environmental and safety norms, there was precedence of fault.

In 2013, the year of protests over allegations of toxic gas leaks at the plant, the Supreme Court fined Sterlite 100 crore for “such damages caused to the environment from 1997 to 2012 and for operating the plant without a valid renewal for a fairly long period..."

Besides, the permission to expand production had arrived even as the plant remained closed since March, when a formal “consent to operate" wasn’t renewed by Tamil Nadu. Indeed, Vedanta admitted to investors in early May that the plant did not possess “the consent to operate".

Sterlite and Vedanta will naturally push for reopening of the plant through legal means and policy pressure if the state government objects for reasons of political capital. And, while reopening is certain to ignite protest, pushing for expansion would be suicidal.

In any case, amends will need to be seen to be made by both company and government. For that, even the 100 crore that NGT directed Sterlite to spend on “welfare activities" in Thoothukudi over three years may not be enough.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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