The death of ten persons, including a 17-year-old girl, in police firing on protesters demanding the closure of Sterlite Copper, a Vedanta group smelter plant, in Tuticorin in southern Tamil Nadu on Tuesday was avoidable. The protests had been going on for three months, vociferously demanding the shut-down of the plant because it was felt it was the main cause for the contamination of the ground water and environment.
Politicians and NGOs, including, significantly, some church groups, were said to be behind the protests. The plant is over two decades old and was sanctioned by a Congress government at the Centre and commissioned when the DMK was in power in Chennai. Now, both these parties are supporting the protests along with a few regional parties which are arrayed against the ruling AIADMK Government. The local authorities have claimed that on the 100th day of the protests, a big rally was taken out in the town which culminated at the district collector’s office in Tuticorin. Soon, the unruly crowd started to hurl stones, footwear, etc, and indulged in rioting. The police firing was ordered, it is claimed, in self-defence and to protect the general public which was not involved in the well-organised protests. There is a long history of challenges to the location of the plant, it seems.
The clearance given to the plant by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in 1994 was challenged in the High Court. Also challenged was the clearance given by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1995. However, the owners went ahead and set up the plant anyway, with the tacit consent of the ruling parties at the Centre and in the State. Meanwhile, after the commissioning of the plant, some people in its vicinity complained of irritation of the eyes and even of feeling suffocated. (Remember Union Carbide plant in Bhopal?) However, despite protests the local authorities allowed it to operate, claiming that it had taken adequate safeguards to prevent dangerous emissions.
Meanwhile, following Tuesday’s incidents, in which ten people were killed and several more injured, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court a day later stopped the construction of a new copper smelter at this plant. The management of the four-lakh tonne per annum plant claimed it had all the requisite permissions for expansion. Significantly, at the time of the protests, the plant was closed for annual maintenance. On Wednesday, divisive politics in the State was in full flow with the AIADMK government being pilloried on all sides for the police firing and the resulting deaths. Partisan politics over the plant fails to take into account the need to balance economic growth with good industrial practices.
Shutting down the plant outright can hurt the local economy. A better way is to set up an independent board which can be entrusted with the constant, 24×7 task of ensuring that the best possible safeguards are taken to lessen, if not altogether eliminate, pollution emitted by the plant. Exploiting such situations for narrow vote-bank politics ignores the urgent need to create jobs and for economic growth. Meanwhile, a weak and woefully divided AIADMK Government in Chennai seemed to have shown little tact and urgency to resolve the long-festering dispute between the plant management and the protesters. Had it shown dispatch in engaging the ring leaders behind the protests, and exposed the vested interests inciting them, the death of innocents in Tuesday’s protests could well have been avoided. The obligatory inquiry into the police firing and the promulgation of the prohibitory orders in the port town has become routine after such incidents. The original mistake was when the protesters were allowed to assemble in large numbers when it was known in advance that on the 100th day the situation could turn ugly. A weak State government cannot escape blame for mishandling the situation.