The slogans “Kekudha Kekudha, Tamizhar kural kekudha?” (Can you hear? Can you hear? the voice of the Tamils?) was heard on the streets of Mayfair, London accompanied by the beats of the parai, a folk percussion instrument. In case you were wondering why, it was because a group of protesters had gathered outside the home of Anil Agarwal, the founder of Vedanta Resources.
Members of the Tamil community in the United Kingdom, supported by two movements – Foil Vedanta and PARAI – Voice of Freedom, gathered outside Anil’s house, in solidarity with the rally held in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, against the expansion of the Sterlite Copper Plant. Sterlite is a subsidiary of Vedanta.
Holding banners that read: ‘Sterlite Kills, Stay out of Tamil Land’ and ‘Ban Sterlite from Thoothukudi’, the demonstration at Mayfair saw the participation of a number of Tamils, and also that of the locals, who came out in support.
Sterlite, a subsidiary of Agarwal’s Vedanta Resources, began construction of a new smelter plant on the edge of the town of Thoothukudi.
Meanwhile in Tuticorin 250,000 people packed the streets for a major demonstration and public meeting organised by the Anti Killer Sterlite People’s Movement. Shutters on shops throughout the town were also down today following a total shutdown (bandh) called by The Merchant’s Association. This is the biggest protest yet against the Sterlite plant, and comes on the 40th day of continuous protest in the town, demanding that the plant is permanently closed and the expansion stopped. Permission for the protest was initially turned down by police but was successfully challenged by activists and granted by the High Court on 14th March.
Professor Fatima Babu from the Anti Killer Sterlite People’s Movement says:
“With its monstrous political clout, its huge money-power and its sheer unethical practices Sterlite continues to strangulate the rights of the people of Tuticorin. Since its inception, the giant copper-corporate has been flouting the laws of the land with impunity, with the connivance of corrupt political leaders and bureaucrats. It has robbed us of our natural and constitutional right to life and to livelihood. All our natural resources are polluted. Health status has touched a new low. Today, Tuticorin is heading towards becoming the capital of cancer. If this is development, we do not want it. Don’t take away our land, our water, our air, our health. We want to live our lives with dignity. Thats all.”
British company Vedanta Resources’ subsidiary Sterlite Copper has begun construction of a new 4 million tonne/year smelter on the edge of the town of Tuticorin, almost doubling their capacity, but residents argue the existing smelter has continuously polluted their water and air since it was established in 1996, causing respiratory and skin problems, fainting and other illness, especially among children. Activists also claim that Sterlite obtained its Environmental Clearance illegally by falsifying information to statutory authorities, while the existing plant is regularly found to be dumping toxic waste in the town, and operating without proper licenses. The plant releases its waste into the sensitive Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, an area of coral reefs and mangrove forests.
Residents of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) called an indefinite dharna (protest) and hunger strike on 12th February and more than 500 people including many women and schoolchildren blocked the company gates until they were rounded up and arrested on 14th February. For the last month they have continued their protests day and night, especially in the worst affected villages surrounding the plant.
London protests targeted the Mayfair home of billionaire Vedanta boss Anil Agarwal. The house, owned by a Panama registered firm on Agarwal’s behalf in order to avoid tax, is the linked address for several offshore Vedanta subsidiaries as revealed in the recent Paradise papers leak. 48% of Vedanta’s subsidiary companies were registered in tax havens in 2011 according to a report.
Miriam Rose from Foil Vedanta says:
“Sterlite’s crimes in Thoothukudi and elsewhere in India were well documented before Vedanta launched on the London Stock Exchange. In 1998 they were even banned from the Indian stock market for two years for major stock market fraud, yet the British government gave them the clean reputation of a London listing without carrying out any due diligence. Meanwhile the Tuticorin copper smelter has continued to operate without various permissions, and pollute without remorse, causing a detrimental effect to local health and livelihoods. It is time the British government stopped supporting Sterlite and de-listed Vedanta from the LSE.”
“Although the majority of the Tamil population living in the UK have adopted the British life, local customs and try to blend in with society, they still feel their heart is left in the Tamil land. This absolute disregard to life and irreversible environmental damage to their land brings out strong emotional upheaval hence the support and participation in protests like these.”
The plant has been the subject of major protests in the town ever since its foundation stone was laid in Thoothukudi 1994, after being refused permission to set up in Gujarat, Goa and Maharastra due to pollution concerns. In March and October 1996 hundreds of fisherman blockaded the port with their boats to prevent ships carrying copper ore from unloading. In July 1997 a toxic gas leak from the plant caused 165 women in the neighbouring Ramesh Flowers factory to faint, some later miscarrying. In March 2013 another major gas leak affected the whole of Tuticorin, leading to a bandh (strike) and protests of 5000 people which completely shut down the town for several days. The plant was ordered to stop operating for more than a month, and was fined Rs 100 crore ($18 million) for pollution and damage to the environment since 1997, and for operating the plant without various environmental permissions over a number of years, by the Supreme Court. The plant is located beside the fragile Gulf of Mannar, where toxic waste has damaged fish populations and the livelihood of thousands of fishermen.
Vedanta’s only other copper smelter in Chingola, Zambia, is the subject of a precedent UK damages case on behalf of 2000 farmers who have been polluted by the plant since 2004.
Sterlite was the first company set up by British Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal in India before he launched Vedanta Resources on the London Stock Exchange in 2003, where it is now a multi-national FTSE 250 company with operations across India and Africa. The company even had operations in military-ruled Myanmar in the 1990s.(3) Vedanta, which was named the ‘world’s most hated company’ by the Independent newspaper in 2010,has received considerable support from the British government, including the direct assistance of former Prime Minister David Cameron in buying out Indian oil company Cairn India in 2011.