Don't allow them to justify the killing of Tuticorin protesters in the name of development
The incident threatens the very ethos of our democracy.
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Development and violence never go hand in hand. India, however, is experiencing a change which proves that violence is "inevitable for development". The latest example of this is the killing of 13 people who were protesting against the expansion of Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi, or Tuticorin, in Tamil Nadu.
According to various media reports, the protesters were killed by trained police personnel who draw their salaries from the tax payers' money. This is a serious public issue and questions the very ethos of a democracy.
While the Central Industrial Security Force provides security to public and strategic institutions, in many cases, the private sector too gets police protection. It is possible only when the government endorses the policy of supporting private capital and considers it as part of larger "state interest".
The killings in Thoothukudi are not the first of this kind, there have been many such cases in the past as well. For instance, in Odisha's Kalinga Nagar, 13 Adivasis, who were protesting against the acquisition of land for Tata steel hub in 2006, were killed by the police; Singur and Nandigram police firing in West Bengal in 2007; police atrocities against land acquisition for POSCO project in Odisha etc.
Violence and development go hand in hand?
Going by these cases, one would find it difficult to recognise India as a democratic state. The government acts in the interest of the private companies. It is not just about extending police support, but also about deliberate attempt to undermine institutional existence of democratic governance. In the case of POSCO, the government completely ignored the constitutional existence of the local self-government, which denied permission to the project.
Both central and state governments made efforts to ease the process to facilitate the project. While the Forest Right Act was violated for POSCO, the tribal self-rule and right to exist were totally neglected in Kalinga Nagar. The state apparatus imbibes the rationale of saving private investment as essential for state existence. This is the post-liberalisation practice which endorses the concept that government exists because of private investments and every big private entity is essential for "development". So, such capital needs complete state protection.
However, this results in a situation in which police and paramilitary forces are equipped with the idea of protecting private capital. They treat protestors as a threat to development and security. This indeed fails democracy even as the people lose faith in democratic institutions to engage with dialogue and negotiations.
The police killing 13 people in Thoothukudi proves this. The company was established in 1995 despite public protests and opposition. It is one of the highly polluting plants in Tamil Nadu. The locals have been complaining about the vulnerable environmental conditions and the spread of diseases because of pollution from the plant for years now. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ignored all such claims and even undermined its own institutional responsibilities. There was severe gas leakage in 2013 and as a result various health hazards to the local community. MDMK leader Vaiko had filed a case in the Supreme Court which slapped a Rs 100-crore fine on the company. Also, the plant was producing products more that what it was permitted.
The main objection that Vaiko raised was that the plant was violating the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, which specifically states that the location of such a plant should be 25km away from ecologically sensitive areas. However, Sterlite got the permission to operate within 25km from the Gulf of Mannar. It is very evident that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board was well aware of the impacts. Interestingly, every multinational company gets permission to setup plants based on this clause.
The environmental impact assessment (EIA) report raised critical issues and later put the responsibility on the company to resolve the matter. This is the success of corporate governance, they can make state institutions defend them in the court and get all support for their projects.
It is evident in other cases as well. For instance, the proposed POSCO project also got EIA clearance by stating that the POSCO is an international company and they would bring in sophisticated technologies to reduce environmental risks. All environmental concerns go up in the smoke for the sake of investments.
Sterlite was found to be violating environmental safety norms and the SC judgment made it clear — "We [the Supreme Court] are of the view that the appellant-company should be held liable for a compensation of Rs 100 crore for having polluted the environment in the vicinity of its plant and for having operated the plant without a renewal of the consents by the TNPCB for a fairly long period and according to us, any less amount, would not have the desired deterrent effect on the appellant-company." It was a success for the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. However, no political party wants to own the judgment. Even MDMK could not capitalise on this in the elections.
This is the real success of economic reforms — every democratic institution changes its operational guidelines in the interest of the private companies. Nobody wanted to take action and helped the company to avoid paying the fine. It is a breach of the democratic right of the people. The protests against the plant are justified since all that the people are demanding is a clean environment to live in. The Supreme Court also endorses the local concerns. The government justifies the firing since Sterlite and similar companies are a source of industrial capital. Public capital has been completely taken out of industrial development and hence the state agencies have to promote private companies.
Soon, the killing of 13 people would be "justified and everything will be back to normal". To save the government's image, mild action will be taken against the guilty police personnel. While the police will justify the violence saying they were just "doing their job", the government will say it is "duty-bound to protect private companies". In the end, it's only the common man who must suffer.