The months-long protest demanding closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, took a violent turn on Tuesday, 22 May, with agitators allegedly pelting stones and toppling police vehicles after they were prevented from marching towards the plant.
At least 11 people, including at least 1 woman, have been killed and over a dozen injured following clashes between police and demonstrators, according to an official statement released by the governor’s office condoling the deaths.
Why are people against Vedanta’s Sterlite unit in #Tuticorin? Why are the people protesting? Below is a broad outline of the issue:
What is the Tuticorin copper plant?
The copper unit in Tuticorin has the capacity to produce 400,000 tonnes of copper cathode a year. It is run by Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit, controlled by Vedanta Limited. It is owned by Anil Agarwal who kicked off his business career as a scrap dealer from Bihar. The plant has been shut since March 27, when it was closed as part of a 15-day scheduled maintenance. The company plans to double capacity at the smelter to 800,000 tonnes per year.
Pollution board action
During the closure, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board rejected Vedanta’s licence to operate the smelter in April, saying the company had not complied with local environmental laws. Sterlite has challenged the step. The appellate authority of the pollution board has adjourned the next hearing to June 6. The board has accused Sterlite of dumping copper slag in a river and not furnishing reports of groundwater analysis of borewells near the plant. This is not the first time the plant has shut down. It remained shut for weeks in 2013 due to a case at the National Green Tribunal.
Why are people against the smelter? What is anti-Sterlite protest?
Residents have been demanding closure of the smelter since February (for the past 100 days), and had announced they would take out a march to the Tuticorin District Collectorate on Tuesday(22 May). The district has been witnessing several protests by locals and others against the plant and its proposed expansion. Protesters allege that the pollution generated by the unit has contaminated the water bodies in the region, claiming that they are facing severe health problems.
An activist group has accused pollution board of allowing the company to operate its smelter with shorter chimney stacks than permitted which helped the company reduce costs but harmed the environment.
Protesters at the site have cited pollution from the copper plant, including issues relating to disposal of copper waste and effluents from the operational unit, demanding its permanent closure. Vedanta’s Sterlite and Aditya Birla Group’s Hindalco Industries Ltd are the two biggest copper producers in India.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ordered the company to pay a 100 crores fine.
While the plant has been the subject of protests over pollution since its commissioning in 1997, a gas leak in March 2013 from the plant came as a fresh trigger that led to the then Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, ordering its closure.
In March 2013, hundreds of people suffered breathing difficulty, nausea and throat infection following an alleged gas leak from the plant. The plant was ordered to shut down following allegations of violating pollution control norms.
After this, the company moved the National Green Tribunal against the state government. The Tribunal then overturned the government order, following which the state moved the Supreme Court. It was reopened after authorities “failed” to establish that the gas had leaked from Sterlite. Later in 2013, the Supreme Court ordered the company to pay a 100 crores fine.
Alongside Hindustan Copper Ltd, a central government public sector unit that has the capacity to produce 99,500 tonnes of copper per year, Hindalco Industries and Sterlite dominate India’s copper market. Hindalco has a capacity to produce 5 lakh tonnes and Sterlite 4 lakh tonnes of copper annually at present.
What is the company’s response to the protest
Responding to the allegations against it, the company said that the plant has received necessary permits and has not violated any norms. A report in The Economic Times quotes P Ramnath, CEO of Sterlite Copper as saying, “the company had offered to open its gates for people to see for themselves than believe rumours and half-truths.”
However, the offer was turned down by activists insisting that it was not what happened inside the factory, but the environmental damage caused by it.
Anti-Sterlite protests: More than 11 killed amid clashes between police and protestors
The chief minister Edappadi Palaniswamy also announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the families of each of those killed, Rs 3 lakh to those seriously injured, and Rs 1 lakh for people who suffered minor injuries. Police said nearly 5,000 protesters gathered near the church and insisted on taking a out a rally to the district collectorate after they were denied permission to march to the copper smelter plant.
Initial pushing and shoving soon led to violent clashes, after agitated locals began hurling stones at police and overturned a vehicle. Security personnel used batons and burst teargas shells to break up the protest.
More than 11 people were killed and over 20 were injured as the violence spiraled. More than 2,000 police personnel from the southern districts of Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Theni, Dindigul have been deployed to Tuticorin to restore order.
Tamil Nadu CM Edapadi Palanisaamy’s statement
20,000 people took out a rally towards Sterlite company and towards Collector’s office and some indulged in violence. They indulged in arson in the Collector’s office and pelted stones at the Collector’s office. To control the violence, police had no other option but to swing into action.
The plant has the capacity to produce 4 lakh tonnes of copper per year. It has a share of about 35 per cent in the India’s primary copper market and exports mainly to Gulf and Asian countries. India’s copper consumption has been increasing consistently over the last few years. At current local demand growth of 7 per cent to 8 per cent per year, India may turn into a net importer of copper by the year ended March 2020 if no new plant is commissioned, consultancy firm ICRA Ltd said in an April report.
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