It took 13 deaths and 102 injuries to finally impose a shut down on the Vedanta’s copper smelter plant in Tamil Nadu. The controversial expansion of Vedanta’s 1,200 tonnes per day copper smelter in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, was stayed by the Madras High Court on May 23.
Residents and environmental activists say that the emissions from the plant, India’s second-biggest, are polluting the air and water, harming people’s health. This opinion piece focuses on both the environmental and human rights violations caused by the industry and the Tamil Nadu government.
The environment clearance obtained by Vedanta for its copper smelter took place without conducting a public hearing. The NDA government, at the request of Sterlite, carved out an exemption from public hearing during the environmental impact assessment process. This was termed a “government clarification.” Subsequently, in 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) held that this so-called “clarification” was illegal. The NGT’s quashing of the order was prospective and didn’t impact the clearance already obtained by Vedanta.
Governmental as well as non-governmental institutions have disregarded the mandates of the NGT and the courts by ignoring the public participation requirement. The local community, whose human rights are gravely affected by these violations, are boxed out of the regulatory regime. In the few cases where public consultations take place, the companies manage to stifle public objections.
The State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) are of little use. In the Sterlite Copper case, the TNPCB was made up of sub-qualified members due to the lack of funds allotted by the State for environmental concerns. Thirty per cent of the sanctioned posts are vacant and its technical staff gets less than half-a-day in a year to inspect any highly polluting industry. Sterlite is one of the thousand industries operating in the face of recognised environmental offences, directly impacting the local community on a day to day basis.
Large-scale protests commenced in February 2018 in Tuticorin by the local communities where the Sterlite Copper plant runs a copper smelter with the capacity to produce 4,38,000 tonnes of copper anodes per annum, or 1,200 tonnes per day. This protest arose against the doubling of the plant’s capacity despite the impacts it was causing. Copper smelters are classified as “red” by the environment ministry, indicating that they release the highest permissible level of hazardous waste.
The hazardous impacts of the plant include cancer spreading across Tuticorin. The cancer is diagnosed 30 days before the death of the victim. This has affected children, pregnant women and old persons. Asthma, pharyngitis, sinusitis and other respiratory tract infections are widely reported near the industrial area, caused by the polluting particles in their immediate environment.
These conditions violate the fundamental right to life and livelihood (Article 21), which is the cornerstone of the Constitution. Moreover, international obligations of sustainable development enlisted in the Stockholm convention and protection of women and children under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women are also undermined in the same breath.
Gross violations of human rights were evident in the encounters between police and protestors on May 22. The police, according to reports, molested women, touched their breasts and set vehicles on fire. Protestors, armed with only water bottles and biscuits, were met with tear gas and gunshots. Thirteen locals were killed. Police officials tortured, sexually harassed and murdered local protestors.
A public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court on 25 May, questioning the deaths of the protestors and seeking a court-monitored CBI probe into the matter. The PIL asked for compensation of 50 lakh each to the families who lost members in the protest and Rs 25 lakh to the injured individuals. However, on 28 May, the Supreme Court refused to entertain the PIL on an urgent basis and may have stalled it indefinitely.
The writers are, respectively, a final year student and professor of law at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, Haryana.