An estimated two thousand people have been arrested today as thousands more arrive in bus loads to demand the immediate shut down of Vedanta subsidiary Sterlite’s Tuticorin copper smelter in Thoothkudi, Tamil Nadu. Shops all over the town were shut, and there were violent attacks from the police as protesters from a large number of workers unions and political parties responded to a major gas leak from the plant which killed one and affected hundreds of people last weekend. The sulhpur dioxide leak was the latest in a long string of lethal incidents and large scale pollution at the plant, which is in the midst of ongoing legal proceedings to establish whether it is operating legally at all.
Reports from Thoothkudi claim that more than 5000 people from more than 71 named organisations attended today’s rally, some arriving in bus loads. They included fishers unions, taxi and auto drivers, women’s groups and political parties. Police quickly arrived with buses to arrest the protesters but were forced back to Thenpaakkam police station as protesters shouted ‘It’s the police that supports Sterlite!’, ‘Police return immediately’ and ‘If the buses aren’t moved they’ll be smashed!’. The police also tried to prevent TV channels from telecasting the rally by pulling out their wires and arguments ensued between a a number of press and the police.
Protesters headed towards the Sterlite factory, intending to blockade it, but were stopped by platoons of police who mass arrested more than 2000 people including rally leaders Vaiko and Fatima Babu and leader of the Tamil Nadu Merchants Association – Vellaiyan. They were taken to private wedding halls where they were held for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile all vegetable markets, jewellery stores and other small stores shut shop and held a strike against Sterlite which saw the whole town deserted except for the protest. This is the biggest rally against Sterlite since 1997, when another toxic gas leak hospitalised 100 people sparking an indefinite hunger strike by a local politician and a ‘siege on Sterlite’ that led to 1643 arrests.
For an excellent synopsis of this weekend’s gas leak and the catalogue of illegalities and violations at the Tuticorin copper smelter please see Nityanand Jayaraman’s article Vedanta-Sterlite – Dangerous by Design, published online today in response to the leak.
An interview with local frontline activist Thomas speaking about the gas leak and the protests in Tamil language can be found here.