On May 22, 2018, the 100th day of protest against Sterlite Copper, a Vedanta group copper smelter unit, Thoothukudi witnessed mayhem, with 10 people getting killed in police firing when a rally demanding the plant's closure turned violent. The coastal town saw another police firing the next day on a mob pelting stones at police, claiming the life of a youth. The protests against Sterlite Copper had reached a feverish pitch, with the number of protesters swelling as each day passed.
Why was there violence?
During the May 22 rally, led by the people spearheading the anti-Sterlite movement, violence broke out when protesters moved up to a four-road intersection close to the traffic signal on Palayamkottai Road.
Since prohibitory orders were in force they were denied permission by police personnel to proceed further. The protesters then started hurling stones and footwear at policemen, who were in riot gear.
Tear gas was used to quell the rioting mob, which continued to regroup. An explosive substance was thrown at the police. Ten persons, including a 17-year-old girl, were killed in police firing after that.
A day after that, in fresh police firing , one person was killed. A mob pelting stones intensified its attack on the police personnel, and they opened fire. Four of the protesters sustained bullet injuries.
Why are people protesting?
The protestors want Sterlite’s copper smelting unit in Thoothukudi shut down as it was causing environmental damage to the area. The company has been accused of being lax regarding environmental regulations, causing detriment to the health of the locals in and around Thoothukudi.
This wave of protests began on March 24, 2018 with people gathering to protest the expansion of the plant. Sterlite had applied for clearance, but the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) rejected their application . The protesters claim that the company has continued construction despite not receiving approval to do so.
This is not the first time there have been protests against Sterlite Copper. In 2013, a toxic gas leak from the plant was alleged to have affected the people living around it, but the plant was allowed to reopen after brief closure.
Sterlite Copper has been facing resistance from fishermen’s groups in the area ever since the plant was established in 1993.
What does Sterlite do?
Sterlite Copper is a copper smelting unit and is a subsidiary of the London-based Vedanta Group. Sterlite produces non-ferrous metals like copper, aluminium and zinc, along with chemicals such as sulphuric acid and phosporic acid.
The plant in Thoothukudi is one of two copper plants in the country, the other one being in Silvassa,Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
Has Sterlite got into trouble before?
Yes. Ever since the AIADMK government, led by former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, gave its consent for establishing the copper anode manufacturing unit in 1993, Sterlite Copper has faced resistance from the locals .
Local fishermen’s groups backed by the MDMK [expand] began agitating against the plant. Sterlite Copper tried to recruit people from the community to quell the agitations, but it could not stop the protests. This too was short-lived as the plant began functioning in 1997.
The protesters sought legal recourse and got the Madras High Court to shut the plant down in September 2010. But the Supreme Court stayed the High Court’s order . After the 2013 sulphur dioxide leak in 2013, a similar set of events happened, with the Supreme Court ordering the plant open, but fining them ₹100 crore .
In 2011, the Supreme Court ordered the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to inspect the copper smelting plant and submit a report. The study found high levels of copper, lead, cadmium and fluoride in the groundwater in the area.