The 22nd of March marked the 100th day of protest against the polluting Sterlite copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi which has been an environmental and health threat from day one of its operation. The protest was peaceful the preceding 99 days and there was no indication it was going to turn violent the next day. The mischief was the sudden imposition of Section 144.
Honourable Justice MS Ramesh of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on a Sterlite company petition passed an order saying, “The proposed (100th day’s) protest is likely to trigger a law and order situation and in this scenario, invoking Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code would be highly recommended and in public interest.”
The court said that non-consideration of the representation (of Sterlite) would amount to dereliction of duty of the district collector, the first respondent in the petition, and in such circumstances, “this court would be justified in invoking its power under Article 226 of the Constitution and direct the district collector to consider the representation.”
Law and order is the responsibility of the executive, not the judiciary. The collector was left with no option but to invoke 144, albeit reluctantly. Protesters were unarmed. When they defied prohibitory orders the police intervened and resorted to targeted sniper shooting, felling, among others, Gladston, Maniraj, Snowlin and Tamilarasan, coordinators of the anti-Sterlite movement, just what the management would have wanted to break the agitation.
All four were shot in the head or chest. The responsibility for the shooting lies with, other than the police and the district administration, the Tamil Nadu government, Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the judiciary siding with the management.
The governments of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa refused to locate the Sterlite copper smelter plant, a unit of London-based Vedanta Resources Private Limited, in their states. Vedanta, reputed to be the highest donor to political parties and politicians, was invited by J Jayalalitha, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, to set up the copper plant in Thoothukudi district in 1994.
Soon after, she acquired two hotels in England, which formed part of her disproportionate wealth case. Considering the ecological sensitivity of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, the No-Objection Certificate lays down a condition that the plant should be located at least 25 km away from the Gulf.
The company constructed the plant hardly 14 km from the Gulf. The authorities condoned the violation. The project received environmental clearance in January 1995 even before the Environment Assessment.
The day after the carnage, the Madras High Court ordered stoppage of all work at the plant and asked to conduct a public hearing. Bowing to public opinion, the Tamil Nadu government has ordered closure of the plant.