Over 100 days after the latest round of protests began against a copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi, things turned bloody in the southern Indian town on May 22.
At least nine people were killed and several more injured after police forces opened fire at protesters in the Tamil Nadu district. The locals have been demanding the closure of the smelter operated by UK-based Vedanta Resources’ subsidiary Sterlite Copper.
Sterlite intends to double the capacity of the smelter from its current capacity of 4,00,000 tonnes a year. However, following protests, the Madras high court on Wednesday, May 23, stayed the expansion. The court insisted that the company seeks public consultation before any such move. The existing plant is currently not operational, Sterlite has said.
For over three months now, thousands of local residents from Thoothukudi and neighbouring towns have been protesting against the operation and proposed expansion of the smelter. They believe emissions from the plant have been polluting the air and water in the region, and residents have been complaining of multiple illnesses allegedly caused due to the presence of a polluting smelter in the town. There have also been claims that the company misrepresented the location of its plant in order to procure the permissions required to set up the factory.
These demonstrations in Thoothukudi aren’t entirely new. Residents of the town and neighbouring areas have been demanding the closure of the smelter for nearly two decades now, almost ever since it was set up in 1996. Protests erupt frequently but invariably die down after the authorities take temporary action to calm the protesters.
This time, the trigger was the company’s proposal to set up the new plant. What’s different now is the scale of the agitation—over 100,000 people have reportedly participated in the protests—since various stakeholders, including the central and state governments, haven’t responded to residents’ demands. In the past, the factory has been shut several times for violating environmental norms, only to be reopened later.