The anti-Sterlite movement: Saga of a struggle

Crowds throng at 24th March 2018 public meeting

20th April 2018. This detailed history of the anti-Sterlite movement by Ilangovan Rajasekaran was first published in Frontline magazine on April 17. Reproduced with permission of Frontline and the author here.

In Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, protests against Sterlite’s copper smelter plant get a second wind as local residents’ health and environmental concerns over the company’s expansion plan lead to the revival of a long-forgotten people’s movement.

PEOPLE of the port town of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) in Tamil Nadu had never before poured out onto the streets in such large numbers as they did on March 24 in solidarity with the 100-odd residents of Kumareddiapuram who are waging a battle against the proposed Rs.3,500-crore expansion plan of Sterlite Industries (India) Limited’s giant copper smelter plant situated in the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu Limited (SIPCOT) complex that adjoins Kumareddiapuram and a few other villages.

The residents fear that the Sterlite Copper plant will rob them of their livelihoods and, perhaps more importantly, “cripple future generations”. The spontaneous mass turnout, which was likened to the “Marina struggle” of 2017 in Chennai, and the shutdown of business establishments and shops in protest against what they called “the most hazardously polluting agent” paralysed the town for eight hours and also revived the spirit of the mass agitation of a decade or so ago against the smelter plant.

Neither the residents of the villages nor those who had been fighting against the plant for close to two decades anticipated such an overwhelming response cutting across all sections of society. The protesting residents of Kumareddiapuram had been on a sit-in strike for more than 60 days before the March 24 show of solidarity. On that day the people staged a day-long agitation in Thoothukudi town demanding that the State government close down the plant, since “it has scant respect for people’s livelihoods and the environment”. Predictably, the environmental concerns have put the industry’s expansion plans in jeopardy.

At Kumareddiapuram village where residents have been on a sit-in strike for more than two months. Photo: N. Rajesh

“With no clean air to breathe and no potable water to drink, we are trapped in this village,” said Madathi, 70, of Kumareddiapuram. “The land has remained fallow and barren. Though it is rain-fed dry land, we used to cultivate pulses, maize, and so on. But farming is no longer feasible. The groundwater has been totally contaminated. We also suffer from chronic lung and skin infections. A sharp increase in cancer patients among us is also noticeable,” she added.

Sterlite Industries, a subsidiary of the London-listed conglomerate Vedanta Resources, has been synonymous with controversy since the day the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa laid the foundation stone for the Rs.1,300-crore smelter project on October 31, 1994, despite stiff opposition from residents. “Sterlite is one of the dream projects in the process of industrialising the State,” she had declared at the function. The industry was given top priority with fast-track clearances from multiple departments of both State and Central governments. “Even the Environment Impact Assessment report was not ready then,” said activists.

The people of Thoothukudi realised that Sterlite had been on the run from Goa to Gujarat to Maharashtra following people’s agitations against it before it pitched its tent in Tamil Nadu. In Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, Sterlite had spent nearly Rs.300 crore on construction in a year when local residents and farmers, led by activists such as the environmentalist Rashmi Mayur, opposed the project. The Sharad Pawar-headed Maharashtra government in the 1990s asked the company to fold up and leave.

However, Tamil Nadu was more than accommodative. “People are wondering why an industry with such a reputation had ever been allowed,” said Tamilmandan, a fisherman and an active member of the Anti-Sterlite Movement (ASM), one of the first forums in Tamil Nadu that opposed the plant from the time its construction began.

The plant in Thoothukudi uses the Isa smelt process and holds a 36 per cent market share in the country’s copper industry. It has a custom smelter, a refinery, a phosphoric acid plant, a sulphuric acid plant and a copper rod plant, besides three captive power plants. In financial year 2017, the smelter registered a record production of 402,000 tonnes of copper cathodes. Its operations, said M. Esakkiappan, head (PR Department), Sterlite Copper, began in January 1997 with the setting up of the 391 tonnes per day smelter and phosphoric acid plant. Subsequently, he said, “production was enhanced to 1,200 tpd, which is the current production capacity”. He added: “The plant is currently India’s largest and the world’s seventh largest copper producer. It is also the fifth largest company in Tamil Nadu. We contribute 3.3 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s GSDP [gross State domestic product] and our contribution to the State exchequer in FY 2017 was about Rs.1,900 crore. We have invested $80 million in multiple environmental measures.”

But it was another record of the plant that was worrisome, said activists. In the last nearly 24 years of its existence, it has had to close down several times on the orders of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and the courts. The plant has faced investigations following accidents, some of them serious, and has been the subject of several studies by environmental and other agencies. It is still fighting many of these cases before various judicial forums. It was even fined Rs.100 crore by the Supreme Court, which ordered the amount to be deposited to “compensate its victims, if there are any, and to carry out ecological restoration work”.

A view of the Sterlite Copper plant with its waste dumping site near by. Photo: N. Rajesh

Pollution capital’

Thoothukudi has, the town’s residents say, emerged as the State’s “pollution capital”, what with many chemical industries in the area spewing out noxious fumes. Instead of addressing satisfactorily the issues that people raise, Sterlite, it is alleged, resorted to knee-jerk responses and indulged in what the protesters called “unethical practices” to break their protest.

The anti-Sterlite agitation has to be studied in two phases—from 1994 to 1999 and from March 23, 2013, when a gas leak hit the town, to the present people’s movement. Fearing that it would pollute the environment heavily, a team of environmentalists, academics, traders, fishermen, political leaders and non-profit organisations came together under the ASM in 1994.

Its agitations were coordinated by a team of local people, including M. Appadurai, district secretary of the Communist Party of India, Tamilmandan, and later Anton Gomez of Punnakayal fishing village, who was also State convener of the National Forum for Environmental Protection. Representatives from all sections of society were included on the committee.

The protests did not deter Sterlite from commissioning its facility in January 1997, but in a hush-hush manner. In fact, even the town and its people were not aware of the plant going on stream. By then the State, too, had seen a change in the government with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) winning the 1996 Assembly elections. “Since then, it has been a long and arduous struggle against an industrial giant that flaunts all resources at its disposal. It has been a tough time. Now we have reached a stage where public opinion against it is getting consolidated. We focus on our objective—the permanent closure of the plant,” said Fatima Babu, a former college professor and one of the leading protesters since 1994.

Sustained campaign

People in Thoothukudi recall how they, with support from all sections of society, had launched a coordinated campaign, which sadly petered out mainly owing to differences of opinion among the movement’s members. Initially, the church took the initiative in organising protests involving a large number of fishermen. “It was natural that fishermen were apprehensive. Discharge of effluents into the ecologically fragile Gulf of Mannar, they feared, would destroy fish breeding spots and jeopardise their livelihood,” Tamilmandan said.

In fact, a sustained campaign by leaders such as George Fernandes, Medha Patkar, Rashmi Mayur and fishermen’s leader Thomas Kocherry bolstered the people’s movement against the company and the pollution it was allegedly causing. Political leaders like Vaiko, Dr K. Krishnaswamy and others, too, lent their support initially, as did non-profitable organisations such as Poovulagin Nanbargal, People’s Watch and the Tamil Nadu Environmental Association.

“When the protests grew, Sterlite resorted to all sorts of unfair activities. We could see the leaders and active members slowly withdrawing from us,” claimed Tamilmandan. Sterlite, according to those who were active in the agitation in the 1990s, resorted to dubious manoeuvres to break the movement. One of its ploys was to sow the seeds of suspicion among members. “In fact, we should concede that they succeeded in their attempts. The movement’s core team disintegrated. Citing no reasons, many walked out,” he told Frontline.

The people’s movement could not carry the agitation forward. Besides, Sterlite also simultaneously carried out social welfare initiatives in and around Thoothukudi in order to counter the resistance and isolate the protesters. Despite all this, hardly a day passed without a strike, protest, lockout or blockade in the town. The efforts paid off at times.

Sterlite Copper sponsored park at Tuticorin Collectorate building

The protesters, mainly fishermen, prevented Sterlite from laying an eight-kilometre-long pipeline cutting through the town to discharge effluents into the sea. Farmers in rural areas, too, staged agitations when the State government, in its order of February 28, 1995, allocated water to Sterlite Industries (2.50 million gallons a day) from its 20 mgd water supply scheme from the Tamiraparani river. The ayacutdars and other stakeholders were annoyed over the supply of water to industries in the SIPCOT complex at the cost of agriculture and drinking water needs.

Sterlite moved cautiously to prevent the regrouping and reconsolidation of the ASM. Traders and business establishments, who initially extended support to the movement, were its first target; they were reportedly bullied and intimidated into retreating, allegedly with the connivance of the State government. “A trade body that raised objections initially, issued a press release later welcoming the project. Thus the trading community was forced to withdraw from the movement. The next target was the residents of the villages around the plant. Promises were made, jobs were offered and the vital needs of villages were met. Till today, Sterlite is paying the annual water charges of a major village, running into several lakhs of rupees. Contract works were given to local panchayat leaders,” said an activist.

Violent turn

All the while the struggle had remained peaceful. That situation changed on January 26, 1997, when country bombs were thrown at the house of the then senior vice president of the plant. No one was injured in the explosions, nor was any property damaged. Then, in April 1998 a blast damaged high tension power lines that supply electricity to the plant. Two unknown outfits, the Tamil Nadu Communist Party and the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army, claimed responsibility and handbills seized from the site claimed that it was a protest against Sterlite.

Tamilmandan, one of the coordinators of the movement, was arrested. He denied any involvement in the blast. “I was harassed and tortured. Many other members were threatened. When it was over, the people’s movement got diluted with none to coordinate its activities. Those who were with me had also left. I had to fight all alone to get myself exonerated of all the charges. When I was actively involved in the movement, I was just 30. I could marry only at the age of 41. Only fishermen and a few of my friends stood by me at that time of crisis,” he said.

Since then the fight against Sterlite has been confined mostly to the courts. Anton Gomez, a veteran environmental activist, did not hesitate to endorse Tamilmandan’s claims. “Many political leaders who promised to stand by us deserted us. Many of us lost our livelihoods and suffered mentally and physically while fighting against a powerful industrial conglomerate,” he said.

Fishermen persevere

Fishermen, however, remained strong at the centre of the struggle and adopted novel methods of protest. In March 1996, they staged a sea blockade to stop a ship that had a consignment of copper ore meant for the Sterlite plant. “The ship was forced to return from Tuticorin port. Later, the raw materials were transported by road from Kochi port,” Anton Gomez said. In October 1996, on the request of the protesters, port workers, led by their leader and the slain Dalit leader C. Pasupathipandian, refused to handle the cargo on a ship, forcing the ship to return to the sea, he added.

At the same time, Thoothukudi district (then Chidambaranar district) and Thoothukudi town were caught in the vortex of caste and communal clashes, leading to simmering unrest. A major riot broke out between two major communities, Nadars and fishermen (Bharathavars), in 1996, which raged for three days, from May 9 to 11. A young fisherman was killed in police firing and five persons sustained serious injuries in bomb attacks during the riots and a lot of property was damaged.

The State government instituted a commission of inquiry under a district judge, V.K. Thirunavukkarasu. As many as 407 affidavits and 1,055 documents were filed before the commission. In all, 281 witnesses deposed. The police registered 227 first information reports and the property loss in the arson was estimated at Rs.10.32 crore. A total of 220 persons were affected in the riot. In its report submitted to the government on October 3, 1997, the commission suggested measures to restore peace and confidence in society.

Away from the urban limits of Thoothukudi, violence erupted in rural pockets, too, following caste clashes between Dalits and Maravas. Police high-handedness in the Dalit village of Kodiyankulam in 1996 led to the caste clashes spreading quickly to neighbouring districts. This situation persisted for seven years and took the vigour off the people’s movement against Sterlite. “These extraneous reasons and the infiltration of alien forces and their organisations weakened our struggle. We hope the revival of the agitation includes all sections of people to make it a success,” said Anton Gomez. Old-timers said they were ready to join the present team.

Health hazards

One of the important issues that revived the agitation is people’s concerns over the health hazards posed by environmental pollution. These included breathlessness and other respiratory problems, burning sensation in the eyes and nose, and an increase in the number of cancer cases, all this especially among those living in the vicinity of the plant.

There have been many casualties among workers in the plant. The first major mishap within the plant was reported on May 3, 1997, when a labourer was charred to death as a pipeline carrying sulphuric acid broke and the acid spilled over him. In April 1998, six workers were burnt to death on the plant’s premises. “Fatal and serious accidents have become a routine affair though the management has either maintained a stoic silence or distanced itself from them,” said M. Krishnamurthi, who has been active in the anti-Sterlite struggle since the late 1990s.

Two major incidents relating to environmental pollution took place in 1997. On July 5 that year, about 160 women workers of a dry flower export unit located adjacent to the smelter plant swooned because, as it was later found, of a high concentration of sulphur dioxide (SO2) in the air. About 45 of them were rushed to hospital and discharged after five days. On August 20, workers of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board’s substation near the plant complained of nausea and vomiting. “These incidents created panic among the people in Thoothukudi. George Fernandes came to the town and led a protest against the plant,” said Krishnamurthi.

Sterlite denied all the charges of pollution. The Thoothukudi district administration, fearing reprisal from the public, ordered the plant’s closure after the gas leak. Two expert panels were formed to assess the situation and submit reports to the government. The reports claimed that the source of the toxic emissions could not be traced to Sterlite since other industries that handled SO2 were also functioning in the neighbourhood. “Accepting the finding, the then DMK government led by M. Karunanidhi allowed the plant to reopen,” pointed out Kappikulam J. Prabhakar, who has been following the stir against Sterlite closely since 2000. Incidents of gas leak continued to occur. On March 2, 1999, it was reported, a few workers in the relay station of All India Radio situated near the plant complained of breathlessness and nausea. A major leak that put the industry in a spot took place in the early hours of March 23, 2013. On that day, citizens of Thoothukudi woke up with burning eyes, breathing difficulties and soreness in the throat. Panic gripped the town and the district administration quickly formed squads to identify the source of the leak. Later, after obtaining a report from the TNPCB, it ordered the plant’s closure on March 29. The administration also served notice on Sterlite saying that the company had contravened the provisions of Section 21 of the Air Act, 1981, as amended in 1987.

Though government records on the gas leak are not available, which led to many conflicting claims, some environmentalists, quoting independent studies, said the SO2 trend graph of ambient air quality in the plant indicated that the emission value had shot up suddenly from 20 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) to 62 µg/m3. Another study claimed that the air over Thoothukudi town in the wee hours of March 23 carried a load of SO2 ranging between 803.5 parts per million (ppm) and 1,023.6 ppm while the prescribed standard is said to be 477.53 ppm at the tip of the industry’s stack.

Sterlite’s denial

Sterlite denied all accusations. It claimed that the factory was closed for maintenance on March 21 and 22. A preliminary report from the TNPCB said that the air at that time was found to have contained 2,941.12 µg/m3 of SO2 against the permissible level of 1,250 µg/m3. Sterlite maintained that the leak could have been possible from other chemical industries. However, the direction of the wind from the company’s location towards the town at that time of the leak pointed to the strong possibility that the source of the leak could be Sterlite.

“This incident sowed the seeds of fear and anger in the minds of residents. After the leak, the movement has started building up again in the town. The people’s continuous stir has provided the traction today. That was why on March 24 this year, nearly two lakh people turned out in support of the anti-Sterlite agitation,” said Krishnamurti.

Court cases

Sterlite has been facing a number of cases in various courts and also in the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The Madras High Court ordered the plant’s closure on November 23, 1998, on the basis of a petition filed by the non-governmental organisation National Trust for Clean Environment, which stated that the environmental clearance granted by the State government to the plant was in violation of the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986, and other notifications issued thereafter. Vaiko, and K. Kanagaraj and Appadurai of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) impleaded themselves in the case.

Sterlite filed a petition, on the basis of which the Madras High Court modified its order on December 1, 1998, and allowed the industry to resume its operations, pending the results of a study that it asked the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to carry out. On the basis of the NEERI report, the court ordered the closure of the plant on September 28, 2010. Justice Elipe Dharmarao, who wrote the judgment for the two-member bench including Justice N. Paul Vasanthakumar, observed: “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.”

The company went in appeal to the Supreme Court. The two-member Supreme Court bench of Justices A.K. Patnaik and H.L. Gokhale, in its final order on April 2, 2013, asked the industry to pay a penalty of Rs.100 crore, and allowed it to continue operations. The Supreme Court justified the penalty and said the amount would be deposited in a nationalised bank in a fixed deposit for a period of five years. The interest that accrued from it would be spent on improving the environment, water and soil in the area.

Writing the judgment, Justice Patnaik said the court was of the view that the industry should be held liable to pay compensation for having polluted the environment and for having operated the plant without getting renewals from the appropriate authorities such as the TNPCB for long periods. The judgment observed:

“Any less amount would not have the desired deterrent effect on the appellant company.” While accepting that the company “no doubt” had “misrepresented and suppressed material facts”, the court pointed out that “the plant of appellants contributes substantially to the copper production in India, and copper is used in defence, electricity, automobile, construction and infrastructure, etc.

“For this consideration of public interest, we do not think it will be a proper exercise of our discretion under Article 136 of the Constitution to refuse relief on the grounds of misrepresentation and suppression of facts.”

The bench, in a significant observation, made it clear that “this judgment will not stand in the way of TNPCB issuing directions to the appellant company, including direction for closure of the plant for the protection of environment in accordance with law”.

Although the Rs.100-crore fine, as part of the “polluter pays” principle, makes the company a liable party for compensation, environmentalists claim that it in a way helps the industry to whitewash its on-the-other-side-of-law activities.

In the meantime, the Thoothukudi district administration had ordered the closure of the plant following the March 2013 gas leak. Unfortunately, the State government had failed to establish the source of the gas leak as Sterlite. The matter came up before the southern zone of the NGT, which transferred it to the NGT Principal Bench in New Delhi. The NGT Principal Bench, on May 31, 2013, constituted a five-member expert committee to study and submit a comprehensive report.

Sterlite’s Esakkiappan said that thereafter, the NGT observed in its interim order dated July 15, 2013: “Let the appellant industry proceed to comply with recommendations/suggestions made by special expert committee within a time bound schedule. Since the appellant company is neither an existing pollutant nor is a threat of future pollution (not violating prescribed standards) resulting in health hazards, we see no reason to vary our interim order dated 31st May, 2013.”

In January 2010, on a petition filed by S. Pushparayan, a member of the non-profit organisation East Coast Research and Development, the Madras High Court stayed the proposed expansion of the plant since it did not hold public hearings mandated for such projects under the country’s environmental protection rules. The stay was vacated later.

Expansion plans

Sterlite’s estimated Rs.3,500-crore expansion plan on a 400-acre (160-hectare) facility scheduled to be completed in the next two years now hinges on clearances from the NGT, the courts and the State government. The expansion includes a smelter, a power plant and a desalination plant. It would double its capacity to produce 8,00,000 tonnes per annum. Said Esakkiappan: “Our smelter at Tuticorin has already received all the regulatory clearances for the expansion.” The main plant, however, will have to wait for the State government to renew its recently expired licence (renewal consent).

The renewed anti-Sterlite struggle underscores the fact that a long-drawn-out battle is on the cards.

And the cries of the people of Thoothukudi, “Copper for Sterlite and Cancer for People”, seem to be reaching a crescendo.

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