With at least nine people losing their lives in police firing, tension has gripped the coastal city of Thoothukudi, or Tuticorin, in Tamil Nadu. The police resorted to firing after protest by locals against the expansion plans of Sterlite plant turned violent.

As hundreds of protesters defied prohibitory orders on the 100th day of their agitation and allegedly attacked the District Collectorate, the police initially lobbed tear gas shells and then used batons. Failing to control them, they finally resorted to firing shots. Among those dead was a young girl.

READ | Nine killed as anti-Sterlite protest turns violent in Thoothukudi

Why is Sterlite?

Sterlite is a company that operates a copper plant in Tuticorin. It produces 400,000 tonnes of copper cathode a year. Run by Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit, the plant is controlled by Vedanta Limited, which specialises in refining non-ferrous metals such as copper, zinc and aluminium. The plant is owned by Anil Agarwal, a businessman from Bihar who had started his career as a scrap dealer. The company plans to double the Tuticorin plant’s annual copper cathode production to 800,000 tonnes, and there has been a proposal to expand a copper smelter at the unit.

Why are locals against Sterlite?

Local residents are against the proposed expansion of a copper smelter at the Sterlite unit, and have been protesting since February this year, over pollution concerns. According to them, all water bodies in the region have been contaminated by the pollution generated by the unit. As a result, they claim, many of them are facing severe health problems. Environment activists agree with the locals. Claiming that copper smelting leads to various kinds of pollution, they have said such plants should be located far away from any residential area. On March 24, 2018, thousands of Thoothukudi residents came out on the streets demanding closure of the copper unit’s operations, after which the unit was shut down on March 27 for 15 days citing “maintenance work”.

What does the pollution board say?

In April, during the time the plant was not in operation, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board rejected Vedanta’s licence to operate the smelter. The board said Sterlite had not complied with local environmental laws. The company has moved the appellate authority of the board against the order. The hearing is on June 6. According to the board, Sterlite dumped copper slag in a river and did not furnish reports of groundwater analysis of borewells near the plant.

What does Sterlite have to say

The company claims the plant has all the necessary permits and it does not violate any norm. Quoting P Ramnath, the CEO of Sterlite Copper, a report in The Economic Times says: “The company had offered to open its gates for people to see for themselves than believe rumours and half-truths.” The offer, however, did not cut an ice with the locals who claim they are not bothered with what’s happening inside the unit. They are concerned about the environmental damage caused by it.