On Tuesday, May 22, 13 protesters were killed by police in the south Indian city of Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, shocking the public. The protest, which was peaceful but persistent, was directed at Sterlite Copper, a company owned by UK-based Vedanta Ltd, founded by Anil Agarwal, an Indian citizen living in London.
Sterlite Copper is the copper-producing arm of the Vedanta Group in India.
Claims of environmental damage
The protest was driven by the well-founded perception that the operations of Sterlite had adversely affected the community through its release of unacceptable levels of pollutants. A December 2010 report released by Dr Mark Chernaik of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide concluded that the adverse environmental impacts of Sterlite’s operations could extend to several tens of kilometers.
Every study conducted by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board and non-governmental organizations has found evidence of water contamination. The highest level of arsenic was found in the agricultural lands near Kumareddiapuram – the site of the protest. This has been borne out by people of Thoothukudi who have complained of coughing, wheezing, eye irritation and miscarriages ever since the plant began operating in January 1997.
Protests against the plant have been frequent, but this time around, it not only attracted several thousand people but was persistent.
In September 2010 after a case was filed by the National Trust for Clean Environment, the Madras High Court ordered the plant shut down, citing the company’s violations of the law and heavy pollution. But this was short-lived after Sterlite’s successful appeal against the High Court’s order in the Indian Supreme Court.
The latest protest began in February this year after Sterlite Copper proposed to expand the facility by adding a second unit in the factory to double its production from the current capacity of 400,000 metric tons. Since then, the protest attracted thousands of citizens from all walks of life.
When the protest reached its 100th day, the protesters decided to march to the District Collectors Office, the Tamil Nadu government’s highest-ranking agent in the district, to hand in a written petition.
It was then that disaster struck, as police opened fire, killing 13 of the protesters and injuring many more. The incident was shocking for several reasons. The resort to firing by the police was not preceded by any warning; no attempts were made to use water cannon or rubber bullets as is the usual practice in crowd control before resorting to shooting; and ominously, there were no warning shots or shooting aimed at knee level. Instead, the firing was aimed at heads and chests.
More tellingly, among those killed on May 22, on the 100th day of the protest, eight were the main coordinators of the event, prompting Father Jegath Gaspar Raj, a Catholic priest and social activist, in an address to the Chennai Press Club to state that the “first eight killings were planned in advance by the police and executed with precision by well-trained police shooters who mingled with the protesters as civilians.”
This declaration by Gasper Raj has been backed by the national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, V Suresh, citing numerous video recordings and witness accounts, to announce that snipers standing atop police vehicles had shot directly at people leading the march, aiming to kill them and pointing to the fact that most of those killed seemed to have sustained bullet wounds in the top torso or part of the body above the waist.
The seriousness of the assertion that the killings were deliberate has been further underscored by a Public Interest Litigation lodged by Advocate G S Mani calling for a murder case to be brought under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code to be registered by the Central Bureau of Investigation against all concerned officers of the Tamil Nadu Police, specifically the superintendent of police of Thoothukudi district.
The charge that the killings were deliberate has also been echoed by one of India’s well-regarded human-rights activists, Henry Tiphagne, executive director of People’s Watch, who agreed that “it was certainly planned and intended at quelling the protests.”
The anger against Vedanta and the Indian government for permitting these atrocities has now gained international attention, with protesters in London gathering opposite the Indian High Commission last Saturday calling for delisting Vedanta from the London Stock Exchange. Notably, this included a large contingent of British Tamils.
Meanwhile, the British Labour Party has also called for Vedanta to be delisted from the LSE, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell arguing that removing Vedanta Resources from the London financial markets would prevent reputational damage from the “rogue” corporation.
In the same week, Amnesty International announced that police had “many questions to answer” and “those responsible should be brought to justice.”
In solidarity with fellow Tamils, protests were staged in several parts of the northeast of Sri Lanka, the Tamil homeland.
Sterlite to restart
Undeterred by the turmoil and murder following its decision to double the smelter’s capacity, Sterlite is determined to go ahead with its plans. Vedanta Resources told Reuters last Friday that it hoped to restart its Sterlite Copper smelter and still wanted to double its capacity despite protests demanding its closure.
The absolute disregard for public opinion by Vedanta and its subsidiary Sterlite has caused much speculation about the support the company appears to receive from the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian government. H Raja, the BJP’s national secretary, has defended the police shootings, arguing that when protests turn into riots there is no other option.
Not surprisingly, Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress party, sought to politicize the issue by blaming the BJP. But this accusation has been proved to be hollow, with documents showing that the Congress party had on multiple occasions backed the controversial Sterlite project during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi.
It would appear the Sterlite issue is a direct result of governments working with conglomerates while paying little heed to the welfare of the people.