Thoothukudi is a coastal town of Tamil Nadu in southern India. Rich mangrove forests and marine life mean the local economy is centered on the coast: fish and salt. This  May, the town witnessed the state police massacre 15 civilians when thousands protested against Sterlite Industries, a copper company known to cause years of severe environmental pollution and human disease. Sterlite is owned by the mining giant Vedanta, described by some as the world’s most hated company.

 The brutal, deadly state violence has precedents in India. Civilian protests against a nuclear plant in Kudankulam, again in Tamil Nadu, saw hundreds arrested and thousands charged with sedition. Resistance against mining corporations in India’s central tribal forests has since decades received a state response no less than a war.

 Suchitra Vijayan spoke to Lois Sofia to look at the long decades of Thoothukudi suffering deadly pollution on one hand and a ruthless state on the other.  Sofia is a former resident of Thoothukudi currently studying Mathematics in Canada. Though not a journalist by training, Sofia has produced some of the most comprehensive reports and dispatches coming from Thoothukudi. She began writing about the anti-Sterlite protests in March this year to bring more public attention to the human cost of decades-long environmental destruction and state indifference.

Suchitra Vijayan: Before we discuss the recent violence, could you place these events in the long history of protests. How long have people been protesting, and why?

Lois Sofia: The government of Tamil Nadu welcomed Sterlite Industries to Thoothukudi in 1994 after they were turned away from Ratnagiri in Maharashtra following public opposition. Thoothukudi, like Ratnagiri, is a coastal town and sits in the Gulf of Mannar, an ecologically sensitive zone supporting a rich ecosystem of mangrove forests and diverse marine life including some endangered species. Thoothukudi’s economy was centered around fishing and salt production. People depended on the sea for their living but had already experienced how industrial pollution could endanger livelihoods—there was a thermal power plant releasing fly ash and effluents. So they opposed the plant.

The earliest documented protest was in 1996 before Sterlite started its production when fishermen lay siege to two ships carrying ore to the plant. But it was difficult to sustain these protests. These are poor communities and the consequences of losing a day’s wages are immense and immediate. Yet the anger and pent-up frustration only kept growing. As a resident, I can tell you I have never met a local who did not want Sterlite to shut down permanently, and this includes some workers they employed.

The reason is simple: everybody has experienced the effects. There have been multiple gas leaks over the years, and in 2013 the whole city suffocated. Many reported severe breathing difficulties, eye irritation, and even miscarriages. There were massive protests and the TN government ordered the plant shut, only to reopen it again and this cycle has been repeated a number of times.

Standing their ground: Residents of A. Kumareddiyarpuram village staging a protest against the expansion of the Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi on Sunday. | Photo Credit: N. Rajesh

What led to the latest round of protests?

This year’s protests began in February in the village of Kumareddiyapuram after Vedanta planned to double the production capacity of their existing plant. Even in 1997 when Sterlite was producing less than 10 percent of copper they are producing now, government studies showed severe pollution. But now they were doubling their annual capacity from 400,000 tonnes to 800,000 tonnes. There were no public consultations while the Union government changed the rules to allow Vedanta to bypass this ‘pesky’ hurdle of holding public consultations. People tried to plead their case with the district administration but they turned a deaf ear. And then they started protesting.

One has to marvel at the discipline this kind of grassroots mobilization took on, how it brought together people across caste, political, religious and even class barriers.

They sat on hunger strikes, formed a human chain with their children in the city center, and soon there was an outpouring of support. The protests spread to neighboring villages and the city. People gathered under trees, men, women, and children taking turns to represent their families, silently sat in protest with homemade banners. By April, there were people gathering in more than 30 locations around the district. They submitted numerous petitions to the district collector, took out a rally to the office of the pollution control board, and sat on hunger strikes. A demonstration in March brought the whole district to a standstill. People made a conscious decision to keep away political parties and not to project anybody as leader of the movement. One has to marvel at the discipline this kind of grassroots mobilization took on, how it brought together people across caste, political, religious and even class barriers.

There is also a long history of exploitation. Can you tell us how the workers have been treated?

Almost three-fourths of Sterlite’s workforce consists of contract workers. They work in extremely unsafe conditions and Sterlite has an appalling record of worker fatalities and injuries. Just between 1997 and 2004, 13 workers were killed and 139 injured. And there were even more, at least 20, deaths between 2006 and 2010. We have this data, only because they have been meticulously documented by activists.

Thoothukudi was Sterlite’s fiefdom. They have faced no consequences for its negligence towards these workers. The families of the dead receive financial settlements in exchange for dropping complaints and the local police are complicit in these backroom deals. But some aren’t even that lucky. For instance, a contract worker Karthiban’s left hand was crushed in a conveyor belt last year. He is permanently disabled and Vedanta refuses to compensate him. With a family to support, the 31-year-old became depressed and attempted suicide.

These stories of exploitation and corporate apathy are never raised when politicians and pundits use Sterlite’s employment numbers to argue for it to stay open. 

Sterlite’s first annual report from 1997 openly prides itself at being a rare company with no union and it remains so to this day. About a decade ago when the workers tried to organize, the management responded by bringing in migrant workers. These workers don’t speak the local language, don’t have families or friends who live locally. When they die or are injured, they’re easily disposed of. Many of these injuries aren’t reported.

These stories of exploitation and corporate apathy are never raised when politicians and pundits use Sterlite’s employment numbers to argue for it to stay open. Sterlite has one of the lowest costs of production of all copper smelting operations around the world. It is a lot cheaper to pay out compensations and operate an unsafe and under-designed plant than to follow environmental and labor regulations. This is their business model. 

In 2014, when the Supreme Court ordered Vedanta to pay Rs 100 crore (USD 14.6 million at current rates) for polluting Thoothukudi, it was hailed as a milestone verdict. But the business press and Thoothukudi understood that this was a victory for Vedanta. After the verdict, their stock prices went up. The court reasoned that the quantum of compensation should serve as a deterrent but when you analyze the numbers you realize that the claim is laughable. It is less than 0.5% of the profits Sterlite has made.

Source- foilvedanta.org

Also, not just India, Vedanta has been accused of human rights violations in other countries, particularly Zambia.

If we were to talk about all of Vedanta’s crimes—and that’s what they are—this would be a very long podcast. In a just world, Anil Agarwal [the India-born founder and promoter of Vedanta Resources] would be in prison but he knows how to game the system. Vedanta has been one of the biggest donors to both the BJP and Congress, not to mention their political donations to the ruling Conservative Party in the UK. No wonder Vedanta has been described as the world’s most hated company, a title for which I’m sure there is stiff competition.

Even though the tribal community rejected the project, Vedanta has not ceased its efforts to source bauxite ore for its refinery from Niyamgiri. With the help of the state, the company has been harassing them using the police and paramilitary. And of course, all of this is justified as being anti-Maoist operations, a claim without an element of truth. So, yes, Thoothukudi is not unique. Unethical practices and disregard for human rights and environment are part and parcel of Vedanta’s business record both in India and abroad. In 2010, 40 workers were killed in Korba, Chhattisgarh where BALCO, Vedanta’s aluminum-producing subsidiary, operates a smelter. Last year Chattisgarh government shut down the captive power plant which supplied the smelter for releasing polluted water into canals. Vedanta also operates a controversial aluminum refinery in Lanjigarh, Orissa. For years now, they have been trying to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills. The Niyamgiri forests sustain the remote Donghria Kondh tribe and Vedanta’s plans would destroy their livelihoods and way of life. An international campaign was mounted to support their struggle, many investors divested their shares in Vedanta and in a landmark ruling the Supreme Court said that the local people’s consent was necessary for the project.

Even though the tribal community rejected the project, Vedanta has not ceased its efforts to source bauxite ore for its refinery from Niyamgiri. With the help of the state, the company has been harassing them using the police and paramilitary. And of course, all of this is justified as being anti-Maoist operations, a claim without an element of truth.

Then, there is also Sesa Goa, Vedanta’s iron unit, that the Supreme Court found carried on mining activities illegally for five years and the theft was valued at Rs 20,924 crore, from Vedanta’s own annual reports. The Supreme Court has ordered Sesa Goa to shut down mining operations this year. Vedanta also mined rock phosphate in Rajasthan without environmental clearances.

And outside India, Vedanta owns and operates Konkola Copper Mines Plc (KCM) in Zambia. Their story reads remarkably close to that of Thoothukudi. Following similar cases of environmental violations and negligence, some 2,000 villagers have sued Vedanta through English courts after successfully arguing that they have a better chance of getting justice in the UK courts than in Zambia.

Police personnel baton charge protestors during the protests. Pic/PTI

What happened leading up to the Thoothukudi massacre? How did the violence play out?

In 99 days of protests, no government minister had met with the protestors. So a new protest had been announced to mark the 100th day. On May 22: people decided to walk to the district collectorate and sit there till the government responded. Had this been allowed peacefully, as planned, the Tamil Nadu government would’ve been humiliated and left with no choice but to heed their demands. It would’ve sent a powerful message, but that was not to be.

Sterlite approached the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court asking for Section 144—prevention of public assembly—to be imposed in Thoothukudi. Even though the power to invoke this law only lies with the district collector, the court sided with Sterlite and the collector invoked it at 8 pm on May 21.

There was no imminent threat to peace and public order in Thoothukudi that justified the imposition of Section 144; in fact, it was the trigger for violence. We should be alarmed at such cynical use of this law, where several arms of the government worked with a private company to deprive citizens of their fundamental rights and treated a people’s movement as a law and order problem. The order itself was kept secret for about 45 days, while Vedanta had a copy at least two days before it was made public.

So the district administration did not make any effort to communicate these orders to the public. But they called a peace meeting with some sections of protestors—only 23 groups out of more than a hundred—to convince them to drop their plan. Not only was this a divide-and-rule strategy employed deliberately to break the movement but calling such a meeting just two days before the rally was itself gross negligence at best.

So as planned, on May 22 thousands of people gathered in several places to take out a rally to the district collectorate. Police detained hundreds of people from the villages of Kumareddiyapuram, Pandarampatti, and others. People from the neighborhoods inside Thoothukudi gathered at the Basilica of Our Lady of Snows, moved through the streets and reached the arterial road that leads to the collectorate. The crowd swelled and moved towards their destination along the Palayamkottai road with many joining in along the way.

When the rally reached the collectorate, the police deployed tear gas, attacked the crowd—women, children, entire families—with lathis and then without any warning opened fire at them.

The prohibitory order itself was in place only in two police station jurisdictions, which meant that the rally was legal for most of its 10-kilometer path. Still, the police attacked the people with stones, conducted a lathi (baton) charge and even set some bulls loose on the people. Meanwhile, people weren’t even allowed to go towards the playground where there was a call-attention protest, which meant they just joined others on the path to the collectorate.

The police did not follow the protocol, which clearly states that firing at people should only be used as a last resort, only after employing tear gas, lathi charge, water cannon and after issuing bugle calls and firing aerial warning shots. Even then, they should only aim their fire below the hip as a deterrent and never to exact revenge.

A police sniper in plainclothes aiming the rifle at protesters in Thoothukudi

TV channels broadcast shocking footage of police using semi-automatic weapons from atop vans and in one particularly chilling video a policeman was heard saying, “At least one person must die.”

There have also been accusations that many of those killed were shot at close range. The youngest victim, Snowlin, barely 18, was actually shot through the mouth as she was raising slogans against Sterlite. What possible danger could this young girl have posed?

The youngest victim, Snowlin, barely 18, was actually shot through the mouth as she was raising slogans against Sterlite. What possible danger could this young girl have posed?

After the shootings at the collectorate, police entered Therespuram, a neighborhood where the fisherfolk live. There was no prohibition order in force there and yet they shot 47-year-old Jhansi in the head killing her on the spot. She had been on her way to her daughter’s house with some fish.

The next day police resorted to lathi charge at the Thoothukudi government hospital where relatives of the deceased and injured had gathered. They went into the neighboring streets of Anna Nagar and fired rubber bullets killing 22-year-old Kaliappan. There is a video of policemen prodding Kaliappan and saying, “Stop acting, get up,” as he was dying and a picture of his body being dragged through the street.

The government was threatened by the peaceful, democratic nature of these protests, which transcended caste and religious lines.

After more than six weeks since these killings, we have no idea who gave the shooting orders or why top district officials went missing when the prohibitory order was in place. Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami has actually said that he learnt about the shooting through television reports. It clearly seems there was a conspiracy to make sure these protests did not end peacefully.

Suchitra Vijayan: And then there is the other, invisible violence—pollution, disease, and loss of livelihood.

Sterlite’s very presence in Thoothukudi has been an everyday violence. Many farmers were no longer able to grow crops or raise livestock because of the environmental contamination and were driven to poverty.

Pollution always impacts the poor and vulnerable the most. Imagine if your soil is toxic, groundwater contaminated and unusable even for irrigation, air unbreathable, and livelihoods destroyed, not to mention the severe diseases that you have to battle, while you are already struggling to make ends meet. Imagine if this is not just your present but also your children’s future.

Apart from anecdotal instances of cancer in every other household, there is documented evidence of higher than normal prevalence of respiratory disease, menstrual disorders, and miscarriage in women. How would any of us react if this horror were visited upon us? Yet these people did not respond with violence but embarked on a long non-violent protest that involved immense sacrifice.

This round of protest lasted 100 days, yet it is only when violence erupted that people even heard about these protests. Now less than a month after the terrible events, the news has waned. Why were these protests so poorly covered?

People most vocal were the poor, fisherfolk and laborers, and they were up against this huge a multinational. If there had been any imagination, the media could’ve told the story of this remarkable David and Goliath confrontation, interviewed people in villages like Milavattan, Silverpuram, and Kumareddiyapuram. First, we must remind ourselves that this struggle is more than two decades old. Sterlite was a repeat offender, ordered shut several times. When the court ordered Vedanta to pay Rs 100 crore, it made the news. But it was always treated as a local issue. Thoothukudi is literally far away from the country’s power center.

People most vocal were the poor, fisherfolk and laborers, and they were up against this huge a multinational. If there had been any imagination, the media could’ve told the story of this remarkable David and Goliath confrontation, interviewed people in villages like Milavattan, Silverpuram, and Kumareddiyapuram.

In reality, these voices were strangled,  more so because it was shared with Sterlite’s own press releases and interviews with its CEO. No follow-up questions are asked, blatant falsehoods went and continue to go unchallenged, and quotes from the company become newspaper headlines.

Before May 22, there were few interviews of the affected people, almost none at all with accompanying photos, and the headlines were not saying, “Sterlite is polluting our land and water and slowly poisoning us.”

Environmental movements are about people, about human rights— the right to life, health, and livelihood. Instead, we get stories stripped of emotion and people’s experiences and perspective. One can only speculate why it is so, but this is an endemic problem. Thousands of farmers have to march for days into the streets of the financial capital of the country to get any attention at all.

Even inside Tamil Nadu, this story wasn’t widely known before the massive rally in March and only after the images of the crowds made waves on social media the situation changed.

English news channels that call themselves “national” gave no airtime to these protests before the killings. Shouldn’t we ask the business pundits and anchors, who today parrot Sterlite’s spins and talk of how important the copper from Thoothukudi is for the nation, why they ignored this issue all these years? I’d argue that the corporate ownership of these media organizations is one of the main reasons for this deliberate omission.

Even as they were broadcasting these graphic images, they were whitewashing the government’s response as “intelligence failure” and speculating on who “instigated” the protests. If these channels were to include in their panels the people directly affected, if we were to hear them speak, it would become so much harder to dismiss their plight and deny them agency by saying they’ve been provoked into protesting by activists or NGOs.

Environmental movements are about people, about human rights— the right to life, health, and livelihood. Instead, we get stories stripped of emotion and people’s experiences and perspective. One can only speculate why it is so, but this is an endemic problem. Thousands of farmers have to march for days into the streets of the financial capital of the country to get any attention at all.

For example, The Hindu in its editorial mentioned that it was ironic these deaths and protests happened when the factory was closed and that this pointed to the involvement of “a small section of hardline groups”. Yes, the factory was closed but they were conveniently omitting the long history of it being closed and reopened once the protests died down. Besides, construction for a new complex—which sparked the new round of protests—was halted only on May 23. People who were out on the streets that day weren’t idiots, nor were they brainwashed by so-called hardline outfits.

The minister, Kadambur Raju, who visited the wounded at the Thoothukudi hospital was confronted angrily by the public. The Hindu carried on its front page the story of a mother who openly asked him, “Why did you shoot us? Please don’t try to fool the people. How much money did you get from Sterlite? We’ll give you twice that, shut down the plant.” The video of the exchange also circulated widely on social media. The government ordered the plant shut the next day.

Now weeks after the killings, and some excellent reporting from the ground, the news cycle has moved on.

…after failing to report the accurate number of the dead.

Activists have pointed out the media largely omitted the fact that two other people died in addition to the 13 killed by police action on May 22 and 23. Valiammal, and Bharath.

Valiammal was a 68-year-old woman traveling on a government bus that was set on fire by unknown persons on May 25. She died six days later. And 35-year-old Bharath had been out on parole and was arrested by the police on May 23. According to Henri Tiphagne of the People’s Watch, who has been documenting the events, Bharath was one of the many who had been brutally beaten by the police, a fact noted by the local judicial magistrate. He was transferred to the Palayamkottai prison and allegedly committed suicide on May 30. But it hasn’t received the attention of a custodial death after blatant police brutality should have. Most reports don’t mention his death at all while others have only uncritically repeated the police’s version of events.

There has been a ruthless crackdown of dissent and protest. Tell us what else is happening on the ground.

Soon after the shootings, police began combing through neighborhoods, barging into houses and detaining hundreds of men, including many minors. Most of these were illegal detentions, the men taken to armed reserve camps and tortured for days. Video testimonies of some of the men tortured are available online. The lawyers in Thoothukudi and neighboring districts worked round the clock to get the police to produce these people in court and get them released on bail.

But environmental awareness has been growing and ordinary people are increasingly asserting their rights. It threatens the establishment, and its message is clear: “Don’t resist, we can kill you.” That’s reason enough why Thoothukudi should never be forgotten.In the first week of June, there were teams from the National and State Human Rights Commissions who visited Thoothukudi and there was also a people’s inquest. But soon after they left, the police started intimidating again. Police in plain clothes raided houses night after night and arrested most of the men in many of these villages. Those granted bail were rearrested in new cases. According to the police, they have filed a total of 243 cases—a separate one for each instance of damage to property—enormous power to abuse and blackmail.

Allowing the police accused of multiple murders to investigate events surrounding them flies in the face of logic and natural justice. They are using this authority to deflect blame and scapegoat small political organizations like the Makkal Athikaram.

The police crackdown achieves quite a few goals. People who were out on the streets that day are witness to the police violence and killings. How can justice be done when these witnesses are intimidated amidst an ever-present threat from the police? Also, let’s say Vedanta manages to successfully challenge the government order—likely because it’s poorly reasoned—this intimidation and fear will almost certainly prevent people from organizing again. That’s the ideal scenario for the company and the government, for people to obediently accept injustice and misery.

In fact, the government has already expanded the Thoothukudi-model elsewhere in the state. It is attempting to crush opposition to the Chennai-Salem green corridor project by arresting anyone who even voices their concern. Environmentalists, politicians, student activists, and even journalists have been arrested for simply showing up in these villages. It is a state of undeclared emergency and an all-out assault on freedom of speech and association and other constitutionally guaranteed rights.

But environmental awareness has been growing and ordinary people are increasingly asserting their rights. It threatens the establishment, and its message is clear: “Don’t resist, we can kill you.” That’s reason enough why Thoothukudi should never be forgotten.

In Tamil Nadu, while the rhetoric of politics and cinema speaks the language of revolution and the proletariat, the reality is diametrically opposite. Film star Rajinikanth said, “I will not tolerate attacks on the police.” He later said that Tamil Nadu would become a “graveyard” if the protests persisted. What happens to people’s protest when the establishment labels it as anti-national?

The mainstreaming of doublespeak and calling individuals who actually care about people’s issues and victims of state apathy and terrorism as “anti-social” is absolutely terrifying and fascist.

Rajinikanth’s baseless pronouncements generated a backlash and were roundly condemned by political leaders except for the ones from the BJP and AIADMK. Before Rajinikanth’s visit, the AIADMK government and BJP leaders were quite alone in their views. The public focus remained on Sterlite and the actions of the police, but that slowly changed.

Having such a prominent personality so forcefully come down on a people’s movement sowed the seeds of doubt in people’s minds and made it easier for the police to continue with their persecution and arrests. Remember Rajinikanth explicitly called for dissent and “anti-social elements” to be crushed with an iron fist.

I still believe that public opinion in Tamil Nadu is with the anti-Sterlite movement but we can’t dismiss how damaging his statements were. I can’t help but wonder if there would’ve been more outrage against the baseless arrests of six working-class men detained under the National Security Act, for instance. The mainstreaming of doublespeak and calling individuals who actually care about people’s issues and victims of state apathy and terrorism as “anti-social” is absolutely terrifying and fascist.

A BJP politician justified the violence claiming it was necessary or else Thoothukudi would become Kashmir. Like in Kashmir, police fired rubber bullets in Thoothukudi. What implications does this rhetoric produce?

But consider Kashmir, where atrocities like these are common but the mainstream discourse is devoid of empathy because Kashmiris are demonized. By comparing the protestors in Thoothukudi to those in Kashmir, this BJP spokesperson was simply trying to borrow the whole toolkit that the Indian state and media use to dehumanize Kashmiris and directly apply them to Thoothukudi.

There was national outrage immediately after the killings. But consider Kashmir, where atrocities like these are common but the mainstream discourse is devoid of empathy because Kashmiris are demonized. By comparing the protestors in Thoothukudi to those in Kashmir, this BJP spokesperson was simply trying to borrow the whole toolkit that the Indian state and media use to dehumanize Kashmiris and directly apply them to Thoothukudi. Because how else can you defend what the police did? In other words, “These are terrorists, their lives don’t matter, don’t listen to what they’re saying, they’re foreign-funded, and killing them is a matter of national security.”

However, many in Tamil Nadu, perhaps for the first time, got a slight taste of Kashmiri or Manipuri experience. When one looks at the images of the policemen with assault rifles and the indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians, one can’t help but be reminded of Kashmir, even Gaza. If you empathize with one set of people, at least some will start questioning if this sort of violent repression is ever justified.

Do people fighting for their rights believe that they might one day get justice? What does justice look like for them?

 

The path to any meaningful justice for Thoothukudi is long. Justice would involve prosecuting those who fired the weapons, those who ordered the firing, and everybody in the conspiracy that resulted in this carnage. Accountability should begin at the very top.

The police must drop all the 243 cases it has filed and the AIADMK government should accept moral responsibility for its callous, illegal actions and apologize.

We have a history of failing to provide justice in India whether it is Bhopal—where we let Dow Chemicals off the hook, the contamination is ongoing, and the victims are still waiting for a settlement—or whether it’s judicial commissions that only serve as a tool for governments to avoid accountability. The government should start by passing a resolution in the Assembly to permanently shut down Sterlite and criminally prosecuting every government official who has aided Sterlite to bypass and break regulations and reforming the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. Vedanta should dismantle its plant, pay to clean up the environmental damage they have created and fairly compensate the residents whose health, lives, and livelihoods it has destroyed. And the government must rehabilitate the workers of Sterlite and provide them employment.

As for your other question, with the ongoing war on dissent, it is very hard for people to believe that they will get justice which is why civil society must do all it can to keep the movement alive and in public consciousness. We have a history of failing to provide justice in India whether it is Bhopal—where we let Dow Chemicals off the hook, the contamination is ongoing, and the victims are still waiting for a settlement—or whether it’s judicial commissions that only serve as a tool for governments to avoid accountability.

The anti-Sterlite movement did not just expose the pollution of one private company. It stands as a testament to the decay in our country, the state-corporate nexus that has reduced democracy to a farce. Let’s hope Thoothukudi marks the beginning of a change.

Suchitra Vijayan is founder director, The Polis Project. She tweets @suchitrav.

Lois Sofia tweets @red_pastures.

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