It’s been just over one month since 13 people were killed in the relatively quiet and small town of Thoothukudi (or Tuticorin) in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, when they demanded the closure of a copper plant that was polluting vast tracts of land they inhabit.
The deaths did lead to the Tamil Nadu government ordering that the plant be shut permanently — almost in the immediate aftermath of the protests that turned violent on May 22 and 23. However, the use of force by the state police against people who question unjust means of profit that gravely impact their own lives only reveals India’s toxic political-corporate nexus, buttressed by the complicity of other institutions.
For nearly two decades, the people of Thoothukudi had been protesting against the Sterlite Copper factory, which is owned by Vedanta Limited, which has a long track record of paying little heed to the environmental impact of its activities and their effects on indigenous communities. The long struggle by the Dongria Kondh indigenous peoples in Niyamgiri in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, against the aluminium refinery that Vedanta had set up, saw victory when, after a long legal battle, the Supreme Court of India dismissed a petition by the mining giant against a referendum conducted in the villages that worship the Niyamgiri hills: they had unanimously voted against the refinery.
Similar to the Niyamgiri hills, the people of Thoothukudi were disturbed by the soil, water, and air contamination wrought by the factory, which had led to a high incidence of respiratory diseases among the local inhabitants.
The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) had conducted multiple studies on the environmental impact of the plant, but shockingly, this seemingly credible scientific research institution submitted differing reports: the first report suggested that the plant had flouted environmental norms during its construction, while subsequent reports suggested zero impact on on the groundwater in Thoothukudi.
A gas leak in the factory in 2013 that killed one person forced the local government to order the closure of the factory. But a series of appeals by Sterlite Copper to several courts eventually led to the factory’s survival, even as the Supreme Court had ordered Sterlite to pay 1 billion rupees ($14.6 million) as compensation for polluting land and water.
When the company announced the expansion of the factory, people from Kumarettiyapuram village in Thoothukudi district began to protest. If the expansion had gone through, the company would have a copper smelting capacity of 900,000 tonnes per annum, making it one of the world’s largest copper smelters. The protest spread from Kumareddyapuram to other affected communities in and around Thoothukudi. On the 100th day of the protests, thousands walked to the Collector’s office in the district headquarters. That’s when tempers flared and the scene turned violent. Unarmed protesters were shot at; rumors emerged that the protesters had been pelting stones towards the office of the Collector.
Among the dead was an aspiring lawyer; among the injured was an angry young man who questioned the state chief minister about the money he may have received in bribes and demanded to know the identity of a superstar-turned-politician, when both politicians reached the hospital to meet the injured. Days after the violence, even as the factory was ordered to be shut down, officers who were listed as accountable for the violence met with the singular form of retribution that India metes out to errant officials: ordering their transfer to another jurisdiction.
In 2010, I reported from Kalinganagar in Odisha, where 15 red stone edifices stand tall to remember the 15 martyrs who were killed in 2006, as they protested several steel plants coming up in their backyard. The compensation provided after the deaths – that cheap token that decides the price of a life – was minimal, even as the land that was lost to ruthless land deals was never recovered. Reporting from 2010 seems like a long time ago, when social media in India was at its nascent stage, and 2006 – when the violence took place – feels further back in history, thus pushing the incident and any pursuit of justice thereof far into the forgotten recesses of memory.