Thousands of residents of the coastal Tamil Nadu town of Thoothukudi are preparing for mass action tomorrow (28th March) following a major gas leak from Vedanta subsidiary Sterlite’s copper smelting plant at Tuticorin this weekend. On Saturday 23rd March a toxic chemical gas thought to be sulphur dioxide spilled from the plant and caused coughing, burning sensations and suffocation for hundreds of people for kilometers around. Leaves withered on trees in the area. On 25th March a 35 year old Sterlite worker who had been in the factory’s captive power plant at the time of the leak succumbed to the effects of gas exposure and died of suffocation.
In response local political leader Vaiko has called for a mass rally tomorrow at Sterlite’s gates calling for immediate closure of the plant. Demonstrations have already been held at the District Collector’s office and the factory gates.
There have been three hazardous incidents and at least two deaths at Sterlite’s Tuticorin plant this month alone, on top of tens of workers deaths recorded during the plant’s operation. 16 deaths were recorded between 2007 and 2011, though most of these were covered up by police and Sterlite officials and who registered the deaths as suicides.
When residents from a wide area around the factory started complaining of irritation on Saturday Sterlite officials were quick to deny it had anything to do with the copper plant, claiming that the sulphur dioxide plant had been closed for two days. However workers quickly reported that the plant had been operational and only closed at around 6.30am immediately after the leak occurred. Thoothkudi Collector Ashis Kumar confirmed that the leak had originated from the Sterlite plant and asked the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to investigate. In 1997 another major gas leak at the plant hospitalised 100 people. In this case Vedanta (Sterlite) tried to blame a local dried flower plant for the leak.
Tomorrow’s protest will include a variety of local unions and political parties organising across political lines out of disgust for the ongoing violations, pollution incidents and workers deaths at the plant. Worker’s unions including the Tamilnadu Federation of Merchants, the Esakkimuthu Conch Divers Association, The Anna Bus Stand Taxi Drivers Association, and the Anna Bus Stand Auto Drivers Welfare Association will leave work to join the protest.
“We are very angry. We have seen numerous such agitations start and then stop. We want an end to this nonsense. Sterlite must be shut down,” said 55 year old M. Shanmugavelu, Presidents of the Auto workers Association, in a press release issued by local activists. They also quote 34-year old M. Kishorekumar – president of Taxi Drivers Association;
“We want good industries to come to Thoothukudi, to Tamil Nadu. But Sterlite is not good for us. It is a dangerous factory. We have to think about our futures too. My 11-year old son suffered because of the gas leak. It is now three days since the leak, and he is still complaining of head ache, eye and throat irritation, a bitter taste in his mouth and has no appetite. I have had to take him to hospital for three days. He has to go to school with all this because it is examination time.”
Another resident posted this on a Tamil blog on Sunday:
“Please do something to save our people in Tuticorin, we have lost our life time by these very most adverse pollution. I think in near future Thoothukudi will be the place which can not be suitable for all living animals and plants including human. We must do something.”
Another blogger pointed out the corruption around Sterlite’s plant, and show how Vedanta and Sterlite are tied up with local and national politicians:
“It was Jeyalalitha [Chief minister of Tamil Nadu state] who laid the foundation stone for the Sterlite plant. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram was its director up until May 2004. Vedanta’s legal advisor is Nalini Chidambaram. Vedanta Anil Agrawal’s son is Naveen Agrawal and Chidambram’s son and Naveen Agrawal are close friends. Minister Veerapaandian and Collector Ashish Kumar pose wearing Sterlite T-shirts at festivals and events in Tuticorin. Of course they will be indifferent to anyone’s death. There will be no action.”
The Tuticorin plant has been closed twice by the Madras High Court for a variety of illegalities including operating and expanding without permission, not leaving enough green belt around its plant, dumping toxic wastes and illegally operating within 25km of the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve. The plant is also using very impure ore from Australian mines which generated 2.2 tonnes of uranium and 441 tonnes of arsenic waste between 2009 and 2010. It is not known how these wastes are being disposed of.
The plant is currently operating on a ‘stay’ which Sterlite lawyers negotiated to prevent having to shut the plant due to a closure order from the Madras High Court in 2010 for multiple illegalities.