Nine people were killed and many injured after police opened fire on protesters demanding the closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit at Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, over pollution concerns and other issues.
While the Tamil Nadu government has appointed a one-man commission of a retired judge to probe the incident, opposition parties have hit out at the police action.
The agitation has been continuing for the last 100 days against Sterlite Copper, which represents the copper unit of Vedanta Limited. The recent protests gathered steam after Sterlite announced plans to invest Rs 25 billion in doubling the capacity of its existing facility to 800,000 tonnes per annum once the ongoing expansion is over.
Ever since the project went on stream, the company has been facing problems as agitators claim that the factory is causing harm to its employees. They have been supported by political parties and other social activists. The management of the factory has refuted the allegations, saying it has been running the factory in accordance with regulations.
The state government said that on Tuesday, around 20,000 people took out a rally against Sterlite and soon turned violent. The protesters allegedly started attacking police personnel, burnt police vehicles and vandalised the collector’s office. As police could not control the mob, they resorted to firing.
In a statement, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palaniswamy confirmed that the death toll had touched nine. He announced Rs 1 million for those who lost family members, Rs 300,000 for people who were injured severely, and Rs 100,000 for those who suffered minor injuries.
Police said Section 144 of CrPc had been invoked in and around the Sterlite unit to provide security to it, according to orders of the Madras High Court.
Vedanta said in a release, “It is with great sorrow and regret that we witnessed today’s incidents around the protest at Tuticorin. The company has appealed to the government and authorities to ensure the safety of our employees, facilities and the surrounding community. The Sterlite Copper plant is currently non-operational as we await approval for the Consent to Operate.”
Meanwhile, the state government said in a detailed note that the Sterlite plant had been operating here for over 20 years. In March 2013, after an alleged emission leakage following which people had complained about eye irritation, the then Chief Minister, the late J Jayalalithaa, ordered the factory to close on March 29, 2013.
The current government also continued the stand. However, Sterlite has moved to Green Tribunal, which allowed the facility to start operations from May 31, 2013.
In March 2018, Sterlite had applied for renewal of consent to operate (CTO) for its existing smelter plant. The application was rejected for want of more clarifications after the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) found that the factory had not fulfilled some of the major requirements, including not submitting detailed ground water analysis. Also, action was not taken to dispose waste and the company had not built a compound wall to arrest waste water mixing in the nearby river. Other allegations, according to the state government, are that the hazardous waste disposal period got over, but without renewal and permission hazardous waste continued to be discharged.
Gypsum waste needs to be handled as per TNPCB norms, but it was not done so.
The company has gone to the appellate authority with an appeal and the matter has been posted for June 2018. During the hearing, the state government's advocate argued that the authority should not allow the factory to run. Like in 2013, the state government ordered the factory not to operate.