A peaceful protest erupted on the streets of Tuticorin one fine morning, the people had come together to protest against a factory that had been set up in the town and the people were not happy with this factory. The factory in question would be the Sterlite Copper’s Industrial Unit that is established, as mentioned earlier, in Tuticorin. Now this smelting plant was in fact a huge income bringer to the state of Tamil Nadu and many people around the town were employed by this unit. The plant could produce up to 4, 00, 000 tonnes of copper per year and was run by Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper Unit which is controlled by Vedanta Ltd, a majority-owned subsidiary of London-listed Vedanta. The plant was a huge economic benefactor for the country. In order to increase the production of copper, the unit shut down for maintenance on March 27, 2018 for a 15 day period. The ulterior motive was also to increase the capacity of this unit to 8, 00,000 tonnes per year.
This is where controversy arose. Prior to the unit shutting down, the people of this small town had already raised the issue of the plant causing a lot of damage to the environment around them as it polluted air, soil and water. Children in the town were being born with various deformities and expecting mothers suffered from complications during their child birth. The angry people of the town have been demanding closure of the smelter for the past 100 days, and had announced they would take out a march to the Tuticorin District Collectorate on Tuesday. The district has been witnessing several protests by locals and others against the plant and its proposed expansion. 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.
During the closure though, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board rejected Vedanta’s license to operate the smelter in April, saying the company had not complied with local environmental laws. So Sterlite challenged the step. The appellate authority of the pollution board had adjourned the next hearing to June 6. The board had accused Sterlite of dumping copper slag in a river and not furnishing reports of groundwater analysis of bore wells near the plant. This is not the first time the plant has shut. It remained shut for weeks in 2013 due to a case at the National Green Tribunal.
Keeping this in mind, let us fast forward to the events that took place on May 22, 2018. Around 15,000 people marched towards the Collectorate office demanding the office be shut down immediately and all plans of expanding should be quashed.
The protest that arose was friendly in the beginning but took a drastic turn after the police opened fire on the crowd instead of using a water cannon or a gas machine to reduce the protest. Something that angered the people along with the fact that they did in fact shoot at the people was also the fact that they did so without any warnings and also aimed at the head or above the chest, when the law states clearly that any shooting that takes place by the police officers must be done below the waist, mostly near the legs or thighs and that the officers can only fire at the general public only if they are in immediate danger.
This act immediately led to an uproar that shook the nation. People took to the roads every day and began pelting stones at the officers, trucks and buses were lit on fire as a sign of protest. To control the protest that arose, the Madras High Court declared the town of Tuticorin under Section 144 of the IPC, which prohibits assembly of more than four persons in an area. But many defied this and continued with their protests to shut down this company as soon as possible. It was seen that many politicians from the opposition party also broke Section 144 by meeting with the injured protesters. The opposition also stated that a bandh should come into effect immediately, even though the situation at hand is even more grievous than how it began. The ruling party also thought it best to cut any forms of Internet for 5 days to the people so that the situation does not “blow out of proportion than what it really is”. When it was time for the ruling party to make a statement on the current issue, it was seen that the Chief Minister had no idea or the situation in Tuticorin and refused to make a statement at that moment, but only stated that he stood on the side of the police officers. We believe that it is high time the opposition and the ruling party join hands to tackle the seriousness of the issue and help the people of Tuticorin rather than make blind statements.
By the end of it, 11 people were declared dead and many more on the verge of dying due to their injuries. The Industrial Unit is temporarily shut till the issue gets resolved. But many believe it will reopen shortly regardless of the protests. The ruling party has promised that it will take into consideration the demands of the people before making any decisions. On Thursday of the same month, the government made a statement that led to great pride to the people of Tuticorin. They said that they plan on shutting the industry down and is working with the courts to make the judgment final. The power to the industry was shut down immediately and it was seen that the area was slowly going back to normalcy.
The issue in Tuticorin really shook the nation but at the same time serves as an example that the officials of the country, be it the officers or the politicians, do not have the authority to curb the rules to silence the people because in the end democracy will prevail and the people of this country will ensure it.
Picture Credits: Twitter/@mkstalin