Protests, miscarriages, deaths: Sterlite Copper’s 20 years in Thoothukudi

The jinxed factory.
The jinxed factory.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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The port town of Thoothukudi in southern Tamil Nadu, home to India’s largest copper smelter, is today the site of much violence and anger.

For more than 100 days now, locals have been protesting against the expansion of the smelter operated by UK-based Vedanta Resources’ subsidiary, Sterlite Copper. But the months-long peaceful demonstrations turned violent on Tuesday, May 22, after police opened fire on the protesters, killing at least 11 people and leaving several more injured. The violence has led to the imposition of section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in the town, banning the assembly of more than four people. Private hospitals, shops, and transport services have been shut, the internet and mobile data connectivity have been curtailed, and normal activity in the region has come to a standstill.

This is, however, not the first time that the Thoothukudi area has erupted in anger against Sterlite Copper. The company has had a rough ride pretty much since it began operations of the country’s largest copper smelting unit over two decades ago.

Here’s a look at Sterlite Copper’s journey in Thoothukudi:

October 1994: Tamil Nadu’s then chief minister, Jayalalithaa Jayaraman, lays the foundation stone for a Rs1,300 crore copper smelter project proposed by Sterlite Copper, in Thoothukudi. Already controversial– and reportedly rejected by Gujarat, Goa, and Maharashtra before moving to Tamil Nadu–the project sparks opposition from residents, who join environmentalists to form the Anti-Sterlite Movement.

1996: The National Trust for Clean Environment approaches the Madras high court to challenge the environmental clearances granted for the project by Tamil Nadu’s ministry of environment and forests and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). In the meantime, the copper smelter is built and receives a license to operate from the government.

January 1997: The plant begins operations, producing 391 tonnes of copper anode per day. Six months later, employees at Ramesh Flowers, a dry flower manufacturing facility next door, reportedly fall sick and are rushed to hospital. A month after that, workers at a nearby Tamil Nadu Electricity Board sub-station complain of headaches and coughing.

November 1998: A report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), commissioned by the Madras high court, finds that the Sterlite Copper plant is located within 14km of the Gulf of Mannar, flouting the government’s stipulation that it not be located within 25km of the ecologically sensitive area. NEERI also finds that it was gas leaks from the copper plant that made nearby workers sick, and that it had contaminated groundwater with arsenic, lead, and selenium, among other chemicals. The high court orders the plant to close but a few days later modifies its order to allow the plant to run while the NEERI conducts another study.

March 1999: Workers at a nearby All India Radio office are hospitalised after complaining of breathlessness and nausea. Despite this, the plant is given permission to nearly double its production to 70,000 tonnes per year.

October 2008: As protests and court cases against the plant drag on, a study by researchers from Tirunelveli Medical College finds a high prevalence of respiratory tract infections among residents living within a 5km radius. They attribute this to air pollution from a mix of gases and particulate matter.

September 2010: Over a decade after the National Trust for Clean Environment filed its case against the Sterlite plant, the Madras high court orders it to be shut down, citing its violations of the law and heavy pollution. “The materials on record show that the continuing air pollution being caused by the noxious effluents discharged into the air by the respondent company is having a more devastating effect on the people living in the surroundings,” its judgement said.

Sterlite Copper appeals to the supreme court of India, which stays the order within days, allowing the plant to continue production.

March 2013: Residents of Thoothukudi allege that there was a gas leak from the factory, complaining of coughing, wheezing, eye iritation, and miscarriages due to the effects of the toxic gas being emitted. Locals stage a demonstration demanding the plant be shut. The TNPCB orders the plant to be shut until further notice.

April 2013: The Supreme Court overturns the 2010 Madras high court directive to shut down the plant, but orders a Rs100 crore fine on the company for flouting environmental norms.

June 2013: Shut for nearly three months, the factory reopens after the National Green Tribunal allows the company to commence operations on the grounds that “no scientific data, analysis, etc, has been placed…to show emission in excess of prescribed parameters.”

February 2018: The latest round of protests against Vedanta begin after Sterlite Copper proposes to expand the facility and add a second unit in the factory. The company intends to double its production from the current 4,00,000 tonne capacity. If the expansion comes through, it will be the world’s largest single-location copper smelter in an urban area. Beginning with around 250 people going on strike, the demonstration grows into large-scale protests with thousands from Thoothukudi and neighbouring areas coming together.

March 2018: Amid the protests, the existing plant is temporarily shut for scheduled maintenance. Subsequently, the company seeks consent to reopen from the TNPCB. The request is rejected on the grounds that the company hasn’t complied with the required environmental norms.

The anti-Sterlite movement, meanwhile, gains momentum with multiple political parties lending support to the protestors.

May 2018: Over a 100 days of peaceful demonstrations turn violent after police open fire. At least 11 people are killed and several more injured as police try to disperse protesters. The Madras high court, on May 23, stays the expansion of the second unit at Thoothukudi, insisting that the company seek public consultation before taking on such a move.

In a second round of police firing later that day, another person is killed and at least five injured. The firing this time is reportedly to disperse crowds that are agitating against the first round of police firing. Protests against Sterlite, and against the killing of civilians, spread to Chennai and New Delhi.