The protest against the copper smelter plant of Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi has witnessed its deadliest turn so far, with the death of 12 people in police firing . It was clear the movement would put up a show of strength on May 22, the 100th day of this phase of protests — in fact, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court had predicted that it was “likely to trigger a law and order situation” and declared that the “protesters do not have any intention of conducting a peaceful protest”. Yet, the Tamil Nadu government failed to gauge the intensity of what was coming. It is a tragic irony that such an angry and violent demonstration could have been staged at a time when the plant is not operational and after the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board refused to renew its consent to operate. It raises questions about the government’s failure to drive this point home forcefully, and casts a doubt about the real intent of some of the protesters, possibly a small section comprising hardline groups. The immediate task is to compensate the public for its losses and end the alienation of the affected communities through talks. But the commission of inquiry headed by retired judge Aruna Jagadeesan must examine why 12 lives were brutally snuffed out, more specifically, the chilling accusation that snipers were deployed by the police force to pick out protesters in a premeditated manner. Any police response must be commensurate with the gravity of the situation; there is no place for heavy-handedness and a disproportionate use of force. The inquiry must establish who gave the orders to fire and on what basis. Also, why the police failed to intervene well before the protest developed an angry head of steam.
Sterlite stakes claim to be India’s largest copper producer and is a major presence in Tamil Nadu’s industrial mix. But it has had mixed fortunes over the two decades of its production, including periods when it was under administrative orders of closure, a ₹100-crore fine imposed for pollution by the Supreme Court in 2013, and consistent opposition from fishermen. Now, there is a fresh injunction and the Madras High Court has restrained it from a proposed capacity expansion plan. This, together with the decision to not renew consent for operation, gives a moment for pause for all sides. An urgent process, such as an all-party meeting, is needed to heal the wounds, and infuse confidence in the community. A credible environmental audit should be undertaken, without compromising on the ‘polluter pays’ principle. The TNPCB, which usually scores poorly on transparency, should commission credible experts to assess the quality of air and water in Thoothukudi. Only such verifiable measures will build public confidence, and make orderly industrialisation viable.