Last Friday, while hearing a petition by the Vedanta group, the Madurai bench of the Madras High court directed the administration to impose Section 144 in Tuticorin on May 22. That was when local residents were planning a march to the district collectorate in the town to mark the 100th day of their protest against the Sterlite copper plant.
Their angst has been that the factory, that has been in operation since 1996, has caused immense environmental damage and is a grave health risk to the locals. People from nearly ten villages have complained of difficulty in breathing, burning eyes, skin diseases and an increase in the incidence of cancer.
The water is contaminated with metals and Sterlite is accused of dumping copper slag, which is a by-product of copper extraction by smelting, along the Uppar river and obstructing its flow.
Judge MS Ramesh gave the order with a reason. He had perused the pamphlets that were distributed among the general public asking them to join the protest on Tuesday.
"The wording in the pamphlets indicate that the protesters do not have any intention to conduct a peaceful protest,'' the court observed in its order. "The proposed protest is likely to trigger a law and order situation and in this scenario invoking Section 144 of the Cr.PC would be highly recommended in public interest.''
The district administration was also reportedly provided intel input by the Q Branch of the Tamil Nadu police. It warned of a violent attack on the Tuticorin district collectorate. Other intel alerts pointed to infiltration by radical elements into the anti-Sterlite movement.
Yet despite all these inputs, just a few hundred policemen were drafted to handle the crowd of nearly 20000 protesters. Those following the situation admit the police underestimated the mobilisation and did not expect more than 2000 protesters to march to the collectorate.
The fallout was most unfortunate. The mob burnt some 30 two-wheelers and damaged cars. It vandalised the government offices, smashing window panes. Finally, when the mobsters started burning files inside the collectorate, the police opened fire.
(Photo courtesy: ANI)
Efforts to use tear gas or water cannon were in vain. It is not clear why rubber bullets were not used to immobilise and control the mob. The Tuticorin police that was armed with assault rifles, as the TV footage shows, shot to kill. Most of those killed were shot above the abdomen and not below the knees, as is usually the norm even in mob situations.
Till the time of writing this piece, twelve people including two women and a 22-year-old college student had died. But with many battling serious injuries, the fear is the number could rise.
Sterlite manufactures 4 lakh metric tonnes of copper per annum. It plans to manufacture another 4 lakh tonnes by investing Rs 2500 crore as this will make it the largest manufacturer of copper in India. It has an economic spinoff for the people in the region as its employment will go up from 1200 to 2000. But all this comes at a heavy price. Slow death. Of the humans and the environment.
On March 29, the factory was shut down for 15 days of maintenance work. But then Sterlite's Consent to Operate (CTO) certificate issued by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board expired on March 31. The Board refused to renew the CTO and so the plant has stayed shut. The matter is now in court.
It is not as if only the present AIADMK government is to blame for the mess. Successive governments have not cared for the cries of the local population that has represented against Sterlite polluting their land, air and water. Locals claim the environmental clearances given to Sterlite are a farce and loaded in favour of the powerful corporate.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi called the killings "state sponsored terrorism'' while leader of the Opposition MK Stalin skipped going to Bengaluru for the swearing-in ceremony of HD Kumaraswamy and rushed to Tuticorin. The government has ordered a probe by a retired judge and Rs 10 lakh compensation for the kith and kin of those killed in police firing. A damp response after caring little for the protest for the last 99 days.
"The chief minister's assurance now means nothing,'' says A Shankar, political commentator who has been closely following the developments in Tuticorin. "It is a civil society protest against an MNC. You have to support those people who have been suffering for twenty years.''
(Photo courtesy: ANI)
Those in the ruling party privately admit the administration should have held a dialogue with the protesters to let them vent steam in a peaceful manner. But a more sinister game is likely to play out now. Now that Sterlite issue has captured the nation's attention, expect several politicians to jump into this protest with an eye on benefiting in more ways than one.
What the people of Tamil Nadu would expect from the government is to hold Sterlite accountable to all commitments of environmental protection. Shutting down the plant is not a permanent option as it would send a terrible message to industry interested in coming to Tamil Nadu. The problem is the people of Tuticorin have a huge trust deficit vis-a-vis the corporate and the government's will and ability to enforce the law of the land.
What happened in Tuticorin has anguished many. On Twitter, actor Karunakaran vent his ire at the chief minister saying, "Tuticorin firing news is deeply shocking and disappointing. Consequence of when our CM is not elected by us to be CM. #Incompetent EPS please accept 10 lakh as compensation and go home.''
The response by Prasath, a functionary of the ruling AIADMK said it all. "Moodittu poda illa seruppaala adipen,'' he replied. It translates to : "Shut up and get lost or I will hit you with a slipper.''
Welcome to Tamil Nadu.