On 22 and 23 May 2018, Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu witnessed a mini-Jallianwala when the strategically positioned state police in civilian clothes opened fire on unarmed people protesting against Vedanta’s Sterlite copper plant. They used 7.62 self-loading rifles killing 13 people and injuring more than 70, including women and children. Most of the victims were shot in the head or chest. Shoot to kill seemed to be their approach.
The Prime Minister was conspicuously silent after the Thoothukudi carnage while the media, governmental authorities and political greenhorns like Rajnikant, blamed it on ‘terrorists’ and ‘anti-social elements’ infiltrating the peaceful protesters.
Revenue officials are under pressure from the government to register false complaints against the 22 May protesters. The Tamil Nadu Revenue Officials’ Association, in a memorandum to the Thoothukudi district collector, complained how they were harassed to file false complaints against the peaceful protesters with a view to safeguarding the police for their excesses.
Since the morning of 23 May, there has been a sudden escalation of police deployment in Thoothukudi including an Additional Director-General, two Inspector Generals, four Deputy Inspector Generals and 15 Superintendents of Police. This sudden surge in police strength is indicative of continuing reprisals and actions which appear to have no sanction in law.
V Vakunth, a former DGP of Tamil Nadu with a distinguished service of 35 years in various capacities, says that according to his experience 90 per cent of the people of Tamil Nadu are law abiding and that 95 per cent of police firings are unjustified. Referring to the Thoothukudi attrocities, he says, to claim that terrorists had crept into the agitation without taking any precautionary measures and created havoc is absurd.
“The police got overpowered by the crowd and they started shooting down people like a hunter would shoot down sparrows. I am sorry to say that the leadership had gone down to the lowest level and started shooting recklessly without having any concern for human values,” he said.
Because of the high tolerance level of the people of Tamil Nadu, the State has become the dumping ground for all unwanted projects. Their list is long, from the Koodankulam nuclear power project to the esoteric Neutrino Observatory in Theni district. Gujarat and Goa refused permission to the UK-registered Vedanta of Indian-origin Anil Agarwal to establish the highly polluting copper smelter to be established in their territories. Considering its investment potential, Maharashtra acquiesced and allotted land in coastal Ratnagiri.
Continuous protest by the people of Ratnagiri and realisation of the Maharashtra government about the plant’s propensity to ruin the environment of the beautiful port town forced the project out. It was then the late lamented Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J Jayalalitha, offered land and helped Vedanta get all governmental clearances in record time to set up Sterlite Industries Limited in the port city of Thoothukudi in 1994.
Soon after, Jayalalitha mysteriously became owner of two heritage hotels in England which formed part of the wealth case against her. In Tamil Nadu also the people protested against the project from its inception and it was intensified in 1996 when the plant became operational.
The biggest contributor to the BJP and the Congress coffers, Sterlite began flouting all rules and regulations with impunity because it knew Agarwal could put in a word to the people who mattered in the Union and the State governments and fix it. Just before the last Lok Sabha election, Sterlite contributed to the BJP Rs 4 crore vide ICICI Bank cheque No. 837331 and Rs 3.50 crore vide cheque No. 837332 of the same bank. That was not all. A total of Rs 15 crore each was contributed to the BJP and the Congress by Sterlite.
The Association of Democratic Reforms approached the Delhi High Court for action against the BJP and the Congress for violating the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. The court ruled on 18 March 2014 the contributions were indeed from a foreign source though made in the name of Tamil Nadu-registered Sterlite and ordered action against the two political parties within six months.
Instead, the BJP on 13 March this year amended the FCR Act with retrospective effect to escape the judgment. The Congress went along with the BJP in passing the self-serving legislation. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Eddapadi Palaniswamy had all along been of the view that his government dare not do anything to disturb what his idol, Jayalalitha, helped establish and nurtured.
Even after 99 days of peaceful anti-Sterlite protest, neither he nor any one of his ministers cared to interact with the long suffering protesters. But a week after the Thoothukudi mayhem, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, without giving any technical reason for its decision, rejected Sterlite’s plea to renew licence.
The company got its Environment Clearance in 2007 to increase production from 900 tonnes a day to 1800 tonnes a day by falsely claiming it had 172.17 hectares of land whereas it had only 102.4 ha for the project. Less land means less space for the green belt to mitigate pollution and waste storage yards. Blatant violation of all norms with the government’s collusion had made it possible for Sterlite to operate the world’s lowest-cost copper polluting the entire area around the plant and affecting the health of the people.
The company carried on its malpractices for many years without let or hindrance. In January this year it planned to double the capacity of the smelter and the State government allotted about 350 acres for its expansion programme. An alarmed people rose in revolt and held a massive rally of about 200,000 people on 24 March.
The plant was shut down for 15 days for maintenance and its licence to operate beyond March-end was rejected for non-compliance with environmental regulations. As the anti-Sterlite agitation gained momentum and the State authorities were unable to quell the stir, Sterlite approached the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court and obtained an order directing the district Collector to enforce Section 144 of the Cr PC in an around the plant and the collector’s office, claiming the agitation was going to turn violent on 22 May, the 100th day of the protest.
The Collector was reluctant to carry out the High Court order as the agitation had been peaceful till 21 May and there was no reason to suspect it would turn violent the next day. Nevertheless, an unsigned press release was issued on the night of 21 May saying Section 144 will be in force till 23 May in two police station areas in Thoothukudi.
The Collectorate has not been able to produce a written order enforcing Section 144. The protesters as they did in the preceding 99 days started their long march with family members unaware of the alleged ban order. They were greeted by smoke from burning vehicles inside the compound and indiscriminate firing by police in mufti. The Collector was nowhere in sight.
An inquest into the Thoothukudi firing conducted by 23 eminent citizens comprising two retired High Court Judges, two retired IAS officers including a former Additional Chief Secretary, Tamil Nadu, three retired Director-Generals of Police including a former Director of the National Police Academy, senior lawyers and journalists, forensic medicine experts and university Professors, and social activists came to the conclusion that Sterlite was indulging in malpractices for many years and got away with breaking the laws because of its money power and political clout.
It recommended dismantling of the plant and clearing the area of pollutants which affected the health of the people and wanted the Tamil Nadu government to find out who ordered the shooting of peaceful protesters. The inquest also recommend that the Tamil Nadu government construct a memorial for those killed in the police firing and take action against those responsible for the wanton murders.
The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School