Chennai:The Madras high court on Wednesday ordered a stay on the expansion plans of Vedanta Resources Plc’s Sterlite copper smelter in Thoothukudi, even as the Tamil Nadu port town was rocked by a second day’s violence in which a protester was killed in police firing.
Police fired in the morning at protesters near the government hospital in Thoothukudi—also known as Tuticorin—while one person was killed in a second round of firing at Anna Nagar, taking the toll since the protests broke out on Tuesday to 12.
On Tuesday, 11 people were killed and more than 50 injured in police firing after a three-month-long protest against alleged pollution caused by the smelter.
The entire town was shut down on Wednesday, with shops and businesses remaining closed and transportation coming to a halt. District collector N. Venkatesh imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 till 8am on Friday.
The state government directed a suspension of all internet services in Thoothukudi and neighbouring Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts until 27 May.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday the Madurai bench of the Madras high court passed an interim order on a public interest litigation (PIL), staying the expansion of Sterlite Industries. The PIL had demanded cancellation of environmental clearance, stating that the company had obtained it without conducting a public hearing as prescribed by the Environmental Impact Assessment notification.
“The application for renewal of environmental clearance submitted by Vedanta shall be processed expeditiously after conduct of mandatory public hearing. In any event, the application shall be decided by the appropriate authorities within a period of four months from today — on or before 23 September 2018. In the meanwhile, Vedanta shall cease construction and all other activities on-site proposed unit II of the copper smelting plant at Tuticorin with immediate effect," the court observed.
“While, on the one hand, the economic benefits of encouraging industries cannot be ignored, the toll extracted on available resources, water and soil regimes by such industries, cannot also be lost sight of. There is thus yet another stakeholder before us, one that is invisible in the array of parties, the environment in itself. In balancing the interests of all parties to this public interest litigation, we believe that the interests of this hapless party should be treated on par, if not made paramount," said the division bench of justices M. Sundar and Anita Sumanth.
Sterlite said in a statement that the company has “appealed to the government and authorities to ensure the safety of our employees, facilities and the surrounding community. The Sterlite copper plant is currently non-operational as we await approval for the consent to operate."
Various political parties and organisations staged agitations across Tamil Nadu condemning the police firing on the protestors. The opposition parties led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have called for a statewide stir on Friday. The lawyers association of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry would also organise demonstrations against the police action. The Traders Association has decided to shut businesses across Tamil Nadu on Thursday.
Opposition leader M.K. Stalin of the DMK termed the deaths in police firing “brutal murder". “Will the chief minister take action against the director general of police for failing to maintain law and order? Will the chief secretary explain her role in this entire episode? Will there be justice for the Sterlite protest?" asked Stalin, who visited Thoothukudi district.
“The brutality of the state police is revealed by the fact that many of those killed and injured have bullet injuries on their heads and faces," the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said in a statement.
CPI(M) leaders, led by state secretary K. Balakrishnan, have launched an indefinite hunger fast against the police action.
Organisations such as Amnesty India and Greenpeace India condemned the incidents.
In March, thousands of residents had gathered at Thoothukudi town to protest against the copper smelting factory, the latest in a series of protests going back over 20 years against Sterlite Industries.