It is believed that Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK government is providing protection to the Sterlite plant as the Vedanta chairman is said to be close to BJP bigwigs.
Even as governments, courts, lawyers, political parties and residents’ associations are grappling over the levels of pollution caused by Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), a coastal town of southern Tamil Nadu, 13 lives have been lost in police firings in the last two days here in a bid to put down the snowballing protests against the unit.
The use of sniper guns and the injuries caused on the head and the chest of the deceased have led to shrill cries of deliberate murder by the police to please the “political bosses”.
In this case, the orders of police firing to put down the protesters had come down from the state police department. The opposition parties in Tamil Nadu are implying that the state government is bent on providing protection to the Sterlite plant as the Vedanta chairman is said to be close to the BJP bigwigs.
The AIADMK government, which is operating on an extremely thin line of support in the Assembly, is surviving on the basis of the BJP government at the Centre. Therefore, it is believed that the AIADMK government is being forced to toe the line of the Centre.
The Tamil Nadu minister for fisheries, D Jayakumar, made a curious statement to the press yesterday – that the state government was not keen on the plant but had not received the nod of the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
While he blamed the previous DMK government for not taking steps to shut the unit on the grounds of pollution, Jayakumar pointed out that late chief minister J Jayalalithaa “wanted to close down Sterlite plant but it was because of the National Green Tribunal judgment that Sterlite was allowed to function…. The state went on an appeal and the matter is pending before the Supreme Court”.
The irony is that the state government says it is clear that it does not want Sterlite to continue its operation, but is forced to take steps to protect the plant.
Sterlite was set up by UK-based Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal in India, who went on to launch Vedanta Resources on the London Stock Exchange in 2003, where it is now a multinational with operations across India and Africa.
That is why a large number of British Tamils carrying traditional ‘parai’ drums held protests outside the home of Agarwal in London in solidarity with the protesters in Tamil Nadu. The London protesters demanded that the British government stop supporting Sterlite and de-list Vedanta from the LSE. That was in March 2018.
While the 23-year-old plant has been facing issues relating to environment, pollution, laws of the land and so on, the agitation has peaked in the last 100 days. MDMK leader Vaiko, who has been at the forefront of the agitation for years, found new strength from the rainbow of opposition parties led by the DMK, throwing its weight behind the stir.
The agitation is said to have received overwhelming support from fishermen associations besides traders’ representatives in Thoothukudi. However, the leadership seems to have moved away from Fathima Babu, a professor, to fringe elements of the Makkal Adhikaram, Radical Youth Front and some members of Naam Tamizhar Katchi led by actor Seeman.
The plan of the fringe elements was to give a violent twist to the stir and draw national attention to the problem. They have partly succeeded in the attempt, as the national focus is on Thoothukudi and the Sterlite plant as never before, following the police firing over two days.
Agitations have dogged Sterlite right from its inception. The unit was originally planned in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, but had to be given up following protests from locals. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) gave a No-Objection Certificate in 1994 for the plant at Thoothukudi, and not much notice was taken of it in this coastal town.
A few environmental activists, however, found a flagrant violation of the condition that the unit should be located at least 25 km from the Gulf of Mannar. The plant was located within 14 km of the Gulf of Mannar. Considering the ecological sensitivity of the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve, activists were up in arms but the plant came into being.
Though locals complained of pollution, a three-member committee set up by the Tamil Nadu government gave its okay.
The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) gave two contradictory reports – the first said groundwater was contaminated with arsenic, lead, selenium, arsenic, aluminium and copper. Ambient air quality was also said to be severely affected – and the second report gave the clearance. In 2004, TNPCB allowed Sterlite to nearly double its production from 40,000 tonnes.
In September 2004, the ministry of environment and forests gave clearance for expansion. However, on September 28, 2010, the Madras High Court ordered closure of the Sterlite plant citing violations of law and environmental pollution. On October 1, the Supreme Court stayed the closure order.
Again, in 2013, on March 29, a closure order was issued citing air pollution after a gas leak but this order was amended a few days later. The Supreme Court too intervened on April 2, 2013, and imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore but declined to order closure of the unit.
Sterlite’s copper plant at Thoothukudi survived the odd gas leak, complaints of air and water pollution, notices from the Pollution Control Board (PCB) and orders from the courts for over 23 years. Its plan for further expansion has been objected to by the state PCB, and it’s not sure whether they will be allowed to proceed.
The two prominent star-turned-politician duo of Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan too hit out at the AIADMK government for ordering police firing at the protesters and not closing down the unit. Haasan visited Thoothukudi today and expressed his condolences to the bereaved families and also called on the injured in hospitals.
Unfortunately for the AIADMK government, it may be interested in going along with the political sentiment in Thoothukudi to close down the plant and also in line with the decision of Jayalalithaa herself, but is caught in a bind, as its political master, the BJP is inclined to support Vedanta’s Sterlite group. Therefore, the issue in Thoothukudi is pollution versus politics. There seems to be no easy solution to this quagmire.
The Vedanta Group has said the plant had received the necessary regulatory clearances for expansion and that the well-being of all communities around its operations will be ensured. “Zero discharge systems, utilisation of waste for sustainable applications, energy efficient systems and stringent emission monitoring are the hallmark of Sterlite and these will only be strengthened through the expansion. The smelter plant is self-reliant in terms of power and water requirements and will not use any nearby natural resources,” its statement said in March-end when the plant had to be shut down for maintenance.
P Ramnath, CEO of Sterlite Copper, has claimed the plant adhered to all conditions imposed by NEERI and the Supreme Court, and its facilities would now conform to the benchmarks set by International Finance Corporation.
Article Source: NewsLaundry