15,000 residents of Thoothukudi gathered on March 24, 2018, with the demand of closing down Vedanta Sterlite’s copper smelting plant. The protest, which reminded everyone of the 2017 Jallikattu protest in Chennai’s Marina beach, was organised using social media. Their main demand? “Ban Sterlite”. Alleging years of air and soil pollution, they demanded the closure of the company. People staying in London also protested in front of Vedanta’s boss Anil Agarwal’s house
Simmering wrath against the plant
Thousands of people from all walks of life joined the march. The policemen were outnumbered. The three-hour march happened without any untoward incident. R Shanthi, a young mother, said, “The factory has caused enough damage to the environment. It’s proven in court. The government should not renew its licence after the 25 year period,” as reported by NDTV.
Nithyanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist and also a part of the protest says “People are very upset. Thoothukudi is a highly polluted town, with Sterlite being one of the most prominent polluters. For years, people have fought against the pollution and seen the regulators — TNPCB, district administration — and the courts capitulate to the MNC’s wishes. The simmering anger spilt on the streets. Key to the success was the call given by the powerful Vanigar Sangam (merchant’s association), which was then taken up by fisherfolk who declared a fishing holiday, by the Pearl Shank divers, the salt pan owners and workers, the farmers of Sri Vaikuntam from where Tamiraparani river waters are diverted to feed Sterlite, autorickshaw unions and minibus drivers unions. A lot of groundwork was done by volunteer residents in Thoothukudi.”
The wrath against the copper plant is not something new. In March 2013, people complained that they were facing difficulties to breathe, nausea, throat infection and alleged a gas leak from Sterlite Industries plant. The plant was ordered to be closed for a while after the allegations but later the National Green Tribunal let the plant reopen after some time.
Spearheaded by MDMK chief Vaiko, the Supreme Court had fined the plant Rs 100 crore for the pollution over the years. At that time, Sterlite, run by the Vedanta group, had claimed it adheres to pollution control norms, reports NDTV.
How did Sterlite come to Tamil Nadu?
In 1992, Sterlite acquired 500 acres of land in Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation to set up a 60,000 tonne per annum copper smelter and associated facilities in the coastal district of Ratnagiri, reported The News Minute.
After a year of protests by the local people, who were scared of the smelter and also feared the degeneration of the fragile coastline, the Ratnagiri district collector issued a notice and asked them to cease all construction work.
In 1994, they set their foot in Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) gave them a No Objection Certificate with the condition that no construction can be done within the 25-km of Gulf of Mannar. But, they flouted these rules and built the plant in its 14-km radius. The other things that they were asked to do were to build a green-belt in a 25 mts radius and not contaminate the groundwater.
Sterlite employees almost 1000 permanent employees and more 1000 employees on a contractual basis.
DMK Chief M.K. Stalin showed his support to the residents of the town. He said that the alleged violations at the existing factory complex needs to be investigated and even the existing plant should be closed if found in violation of norms and laws. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has been singled out for criticism. He has said that “The TNPCB which ought to have paid keen attention to and taken strong steps to Sterlite’s operations has failed to do its job, and this has resulted in the continued sufferings of hundreds of children, women and the elderly of this district who are victims of cancer and other diseases and are fighting for their lives in hospitals around Tamil Nadu.”