Police shot and killed 13 people during large protests in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu against a copper smelting plant, which has allegedly been polluting groundwater in Thoothukudi, also known as Tuticorin, city.

Residents have been calling for a complete shutdown of Sterlite Copper, a subsidiary of multinational mining company Vedanta Ltd, which they say is badly affecting the local environment and the health of people living near the plant. Activists say bad management of effluent has increased the iron content in groundwater to a level much higher than that prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards for safe drinking.

Tamil Nadu state was closed from dawn-to-dusk on Friday because of the protests. The shutdown was called by opposition party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which condemned the killings and the lack of a proper response from the state government. Internet links have been suspended in Tuticorin city and adjoining districts till Sunday (May 27).

Image showing police officials in civilian clothing shooting at protesting residents of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) city. Twitter/@mkstalin
Police in civilian clothing are seen shooting at protesters in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) city. Photo: Twitter/ @mkstalin

The National Human Rights Commission has issued notices to the Tamil Nadu chief secretary and director-general of police, asking them to submit detailed reports within two weeks on the large-scale violence. There have been complaints about police firing live rounds, but police said at least 18 officers had been injured in clashes over two days.

The Sterlite plant is the second biggest copper smelter in India and can produce 400,000 tonnes of copper cathode a year. The company’s license to operate the site expired last month but it is seeking to renew its license and double its capacity to 800,000 tonnes per year. However, the Madras High Court put a stay on its expansion plans on Wednesday.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered a complete shutdown of the Sterlite plant on Thursday after accusing it of dumping copper slag in a river and not furnishing reports on groundwater analysis of bore-wells near the site.

Last month the company challenged the board’s earlier move to cancel its license. An appellate authority of the pollution board is due to hear the case next on June 6. Sterlite has dismissed all allegations leveled by residents and the state pollution board due to lack of evidence and deemed them “false propaganda”.

This is not the first time that the plant has been shut, nor is it the first time local people have protesting against it. In 2013, the state’s Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, ordered the plant closed after a major gas leak. The matter was then moved to the National Green Tribunal, which overturned the state government’s order. The state then appealed to the Supreme Court, which simply directed the company to pay a fine of Rs 100 crore (US$14.77 million) within three months.

A bus on fire is seen during a protest against the construction of a copper smelter by Vedanta Resources, in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, India in this still image from May 23, 2018 video footage. ANI via REUTERS TV ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. NO ACCESS MEDIACORP/BBC Digital/BBC. For Reuters customers only.
A bus was set ablaze during days of protest against the Sterlite copper smelter in Tamil Nadu, in this image from May 23 video footage. Photo: ANI via Reuters TV

Asia Times spoke to Nityanand Jayaraman, a writer and volunteer for the Chennai Solidarity group, which has been an active participant in generating environmental awareness, to understand the issue.

This is not the first time the plant has been shut, right?

The plant has been closed four times – in 1998, 2010, 2013 and now. A lot of petitions have been filed seeking closure of the plant. It always bounces back. To continue with the role of India in copper production, they re-open it time and again.

So if protests have continued for two decades, what prompted them to get aggressive this time?

It was the plans to expand the plant. If they want to kill people, they can, but we will not stop now. If you visit Tuticorin, there is copper slag everywhere. The people have been suffering from respiratory disease, cancer and women are suffering from menstrual disorder. Sterlite doesn’t even have a license to operate in the first place.

But what about the 1,000-odd people working at the plant whose lives will be directly affected if the plant is shut?

Just for 1,000 to 1,200 people, we can’t let other people suffer from such grave health implications like cancer. This same argument was given by the Supreme Court and which in my thinking is a perversive argument. The authorities should face up to the responsibility and provide better opportunities to workers employed at the plant. The workers themselves will look for better jobs as well.

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest, after at least 13 people were killed when police fired on protesters seeking closure of plant on environmental grounds in town of Thoothukudi in southern state of Tamil Nadu, in Chennai, India, May 24, 2018. REUTERS/P.Ravikumar
Demonstrators shout slogans during a rally seeking closure of the copper smelter on environmental grounds in Tamil Nadu on May 24, 2018. Photo: Reuters/P. Ravikumar

Is this the only such case in Tamil Nadu?

This sort of lack of enforcement from the authorities has happened all over Tamil Nadu. Factories across the Kaveri belt have been operating without a license for a long time. Even after revealing this, no action has been taken. Moreover, there have been efforts by saffron-clad people (linked to the BJP ruling party) to suppress these protests through violence.

So who is responsible for the ongoing chaos in Tuticorin? 

The onus lies with both the state and the federal governments. The Ministry of Environment & Forests has also not issued any statement regarding this. They are pretending as if this is happening somewhere else. All the complaints have fallen on deaf ears. As there is no alternative to copper production such plants should be set up in locations far away from residential areas. There should be proper pollution checks and, most importantly, there should be enforcement.

The plant also does not have a greenbelt of 25 meters around it, as required by its license from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. The company has been a repeat offender since its inception in 1997.  The last air-pollution check was done 10 years ago when a high incidence of respiratory diseases was found in 2007. At that time Sterlite was running at less than at half its current production levels.

After two decades of fighting, will this issue finally see a closure this time?

I am skeptical about the current government. I don’t know if anything will happen and to assume an outcome would only be astrological.