15th February. On Monday up to 500 people declared a hunger strike and indefinite protest against the planned expansion of Vedanta subsidiary Sterlite’s copper smelter in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), Tamil Nadu. Two days into the protest police rounded up and arrested 270 people including many women and children, eventually releasing all except eight so-called ringleaders including social worker and Anti Sterlite Struggle Federation Coordinator Professor Fatima Babu, who are still being held by police. Large groups of school children and their mothers made up the majority of the protest. Their placards and statements to the media demand an end to years of toxic pollution from the plant, which is causing respiratory diseases and fainting, especially affecting the children, with long term consequences to their health. Water is also being polluted, and huge amounts used by the plant, in an already water-stressed area.
Sterlite, which was the first company set up by Anil Agarwal, before he launched Vedanta Resources in London, has already started construction of a new 4 million tonne/year smelter in the town, nearly doubling its existing capacity. Following its usual pattern and demonstrating its sense of legal impunity, the company does not yet have full Environmental Clearance for the new construction. Sterlite’s existing smelter is a second hand plant from Chile, built in the SIPCOT industrial park, just outside of Thoothukudi town in 1996, after being turned down by Ratnagiri in Maharastra due to pollution fears. In 2013 a major leak of sulphur gas from the plant affected thousands in the town, leading to mass protests by local taxi and fishermens trade unions among others, and the temporary closure of the plant. Journalists and local people have reported on illegal waste dumps around the town, and in the sea, and investigations of port data revealed that Vedanta were using highly contaminated imported copper concentrates, producing 2.2 tonnes of uranium and 441 tonnes of arsenic between 2009 and 2010 alone. The plant emits sulphur dioxide, arsenic and heavy metals into the surrounding area.
On 15th Feb Tuticorin social activists handed over a petition to the District Collector, Venkadesh, demanding the release of the imprisoned protesters. The letter stated:
‘In Tuticorin District water, land and air and everything is being polluted by the Sterlite establishment. The people protesting peacefully against the expansion of the plant were charged and imprisoned by the police. Take action to release them immediately and withdraw the charges. Action must be taken to stop the police pressure and atrocities unleashed on innocent people fighting for their rights.’
In September 2017 the National Green Tribunal (NGT) issued a judgment, following the show cause notice they had issued to Sterlite in March 2017 for several instances of toxic waste dumping and pollution as well as operating the smelter above its consented capacity. Many tonnes of copper slag were found dumped in the Upper Odai river, which Sterlite claimed they had sold to a developer for levelling of a construction site. The Upper stream was also blocked with toxic copper slag causing a ‘manmade disaster’.
The judgment reveals that Sterlite had expanded the smelting capacity of the plant without permission, and had operated without authorisation under the Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008 between 9.7.2013 and 24.8.2017. SO2 pollution was being experienced by local residents, who were experiencing stinging in the nose and difficulty breathing as a result. Despite these issues the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) had renewed Sterlite’s consent to operate under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, on 7.9.2017, leading the local residents, represented by advocate V. Ramasubbu to complain to the NGT, asking for compensation for pollution and environmental damage.
The applicants in the case also claimed that the TNPCB and Central Pollution Control Board (CPBC) had conspired to seal the Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Station (CAAQMS), which is supposed to monitor the Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and other noxious gases emitted from the smelter, rendering its data useless. Though this was denied by the CPCB the NGT reserved judgment on the issue, noting that ‘it is as if the grievances of the applicant has no redressal and he is left in lurch’, and suggested the NGT or TNPCB could investigate the claims. Download the full judgment here.
The judgment again highlights the ongoing sense of impunity held by Sterlite, which has continuously operated without various consents, and flagrantly violated environmental laws over the years, with the clear collusion of the TNPCB. In April 2013, following closure of the plant after the town-wide pollution incident which led to mass protests, the Supreme Court of India had imposed a Rs. 100 Crore fine on Sterlite for operating the plant without environmental consent between 1997 – 2012.
Meanwhile in Chingola, Zambia, Vedanta’s sister copper smelter was set up only 50m from a residential street. Residents of East 1st Street and the surrounding area have repeatedly had their homes filled with toxic fumes, and their walls cracking from explosions inside the smelter. Foil Vedanta activists found their eyes stinging and itching, and developed headaches and nosebleeds when visiting both Tuticorin and the East 1st Street area of Chingola. The long term impacts are unimaginable.
The article from The News Minute, and videos from Tamil Nadu news below detail the protest.