Sterlite Protest in Tamil Nadu: Understanding the What, Why & How

Copper production, including mining, smelting and refining, is a hazardous industry that produces toxic by-products like lead, arsenic and sulphur oxides that adversely impact water, soil and air quality.

Until a few years ago, a simple Google search for ‘Tuticorin’ would throw up results describing the port city. Today, the search yields very different results – the pages are all about the anti-Sterlite protests, with details of the constant clashes between police forces and the protestors.

With noted citizens like Kamal Haasan, Rajnikanth and Arvind Swami coming out in support of the protestors, this issue is snowballing to a different degree altogether.

Lending his voice
Photo Source: Heemanaathan Mukaya

What is the Sterlite controversy?

A copper smelter, owned and operated by Vedanta Limited is at the core of the issue. The residents of Tuticorin for almost a decade have been demanding its closure, citing environmental and health hazards because of its proximity to the town.

Copper production, including mining, smelting and refining, is a hazardous industry that produces toxic by-products like lead, arsenic and sulphur oxides that adversely impact water, soil and air quality.

Rejected by Maharashtra and accepted by Tamil Nadu?

How can something that is bad for one state be good for another? In 1992, the company was allotted almost 500 acres of land by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation to set up a copper smelter in the coastal town of Ratnagiri.

Fearing the effects of pollution and contamination of their ecosystem, the residents protested against this for almost a year.

Photo Source

Due to the protests, the District Collector of Ratnagiri sent out a letter in 1993 asking Sterlite to suspend all their construction activities in the town.

Within a year of this, Sterlite had moved its base to Tamil Nadu and managed to get all the requisite sanctions for them to start construction. While protestors came out in large numbers even in Tamil Nadu, they were side-stepped. The smelter was commissioned in 1996.

The Sterlite project has been marred by controversy from the word go.

Widespread protests
Photo Source

In the beginning, there were protests because the plant was located very close to the Gulf of Mannar, which is a sensitive marine ecosystem.

Despite the evidence from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board that Sterlite was contaminating the groundwater, air and soil with its effluents, no action was taken.

A report published by the Tirunelveli Medical College found a high prevalence of asthma, pharyngitis, sinusitis and other respiratory tract infections, all proxies for the presence of harmful gases and particulate irritants in the lower atmosphere. They also found an inexplicably high incidence of menstrual disorders, like menorrhagia and dysmenorrhea, in women living in the area.

Vedanta, on the other hand, has said that the protests were based on false allegations. Through all these years, the company has steadily increased its capacity by over six times from 60,000 tonnes per annum to over 360,000 tonnes per annum, despite constant run-ins with various regulatory bodies, protest groups and activists.

100 days of protest

Protests against this plant have been ongoing for the last 20 years.

But what has triggered this recent wave is the proposed expansion of the smelting plant that almost doubles the existing capacity – which is within a few hundred meters of one of Tuticorin’s residential neighbourhoods.

Photo Source: Vijay Mannai’s Facebook page

While these protests had claimed many lives over the years, perhaps, on May 22nd, 2018, almost 10 of them were killed and 50 injured when the police opened fire on the protestors, as reported by The New Indian Express.

It is even more concerning how the government machinery, which is supposed to safeguard the interests of citizens, seems to willfully suppress the protests while supporting the controversial project to the hilt! When will the interests of the real stakeholders be protected in India?

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)

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