Police stand guard outside a copper smelter factory of Sterlite Industries Ltd in Thoothukudi. (Reuters)
Police stand guard outside a copper smelter factory of Sterlite Industries Ltd in Thoothukudi. (Reuters)

TN: Sterlite protests return to haunt Thoothukudi ahead of Lok Sabha polls

  • Political outfits have been using the Sterlite protests in Thoothukudi to drum up support for their respective candidature, but most of them avoid making a campaign stop here
  • 13 people were killed in the police firing during protests against the operation of Sterlite’s copper smelter factory in Thoothukudi

THOOTHUKUDI : Muthumalai Ester waits anxiously for this correspondent at the doorstep of her humble home, located at the end of her village, a few hundred yards away from the highway near the port town of Thoothukudi, about 600 km from Chennai.

No later than a second after entering the house, she rushes in and brings a few torn paper clippings, the only memories that remain of her 36-year-old son, Bharatiraja, who died after he was allegedly beaten by the police present at the protests against copper smelting firm, Sterlite Industries Ltd, on 22 May last year.

"Is there no one accountable for my son's death," Ester, who is better known as “Thoothukudi Amma", wails. She has broken her hand and barely has any money to visit the doctor again.

Her teary eyes hoping that help would come in any form to help her eek out a living after the death of her son, who like many others found themselves in the middle of the protests in which 13 people were killed in the police firing.

Nearing the end of his 12-year jail sentence, Bharatiraja was out on parole for 10 days to visit his sick mother. He was bundled up by the police when he was visiting his brother’s house close to the protest site. Eight days later, she got a call that her son was dead, but no one bothered to explain how. Since he did not die from a bullet injury and a commission set up to inquire into the protests is yet to determine the circumstances leading to his death, his family has not been paid any compensation.

About 5 kms away, 34-year-old Roop Kumar has just been deputed as the driver to the assistant commissioner. Kumar was given a government job and 20 lakh after his uncle Kandiah, was killed by a police bullet during the protests. The two tales of loss similar but the outcome showing two very starkly contrasting images of the survivors.

Politically, the incident gave the opposition in Tamil Nadu enough ammunition to attack the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government and the Narendra Modi-led Centre, who the people hold responsible for how things unfolded that day.

The political voices growing louder in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections.

But like justice, empathy also appears in short supply in Thoothukudi.

"We have forgotten about Sterlite. We are busy with election work," Sukumar, the personal assistant of the District Collector says, before getting on the phone explaining where political flags could be tied.

Thoothukudi DC, Sandeep Nanduri says that all those who were eligible for compensation have been paid. But money has not been the panacea some hope it to be for all problems that comes with industries. One of the fastest growing countries in the world, India has been trying to balance expectations of its large farming community and requirements of land and resources for industries, that on the one hand promises to create jobs but on the other threatens to displace villages. But the problems around Sterlite is far more sensitive. Literally.

Two police constables take turns guarding the tiny hamlet of Kumarettiyapuram, the epicentre of the protests, that shares its surroundings with the factory, that ceased operations since around 25 March.

"Please don't speak to anyone here about anything.," warns the one of the constables, sitting up on a stone bench inside a bus shelter, where they spend most of their time scrolling through their phone or sleeping. They bring two 25 litre cans of water from town for drinking as the water here is believed to be contaminated due to its proximity to the factory.

Political outfits have been using the Sterlite protests to drum up support for their respective candidature and party but most of them avoid making a campaign stop here.

The fields around the village is dry and appears uncultivable. A man in his 50’s pushes a cart with five water containers to the nearby borewell, about 500 meters from the village. “This water is for the cattle only. We can’t feed them water from our own village," the man said, adding that he will neither reveal his name as he “does not want trouble".

People here fear both the police and the people from the company. There is a palpable air of distrust among the people here, who suspect the intentions of any outsider who shows up here. “The villagers had a problem with the expansion of the factory and not pollution," said a spokesperson for the company, adding that the issue was exploited and manipulated by activists. The official said that almost 90% of the villagers want the factory to be reopened as it employed close to 10,000 direct and indirect employees and also supplied drinking water to nearby villages as part of its CSR activities. He is confident that the factory will be reopened unlike Ester who has no idea if her son will get the justice he deserves.


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