The People of Tuticorin versus Sterlite Copper

By Pamela Philipose

29 June 2018

How the anti-Sterlite struggle is finding strength in numbers.
One of the posters hailing the 13 killed in police firing. All images by Pamela Philipose

One of the posters hailing the 13 killed in police firing.
All images by Pamela Philipose.

The road winding through the industrial complex of the State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) at Tuticorin, or Thoothukudi as it is known locally, runs past the multinational mining corporation Vedanta’s copper smelting complex, Sterlite, with its ancillary plants and captive power generating units. Almost since the day it was set up in 1996, the plant has been perceived as a death knell by Tuticorin’s residents, a source of endless toxins making their way into the air and water. When this writer visited the area, ten days had lapsed since the eruption of a maelstrom of public fury that had played out a short distance away in the heart of Tuticorin. As crowds of anti-Sterlite protestors thronged the city on 22 May, local police fired live ammunition at them, causing people to “drop like birds”, in the words of one protestor.

Here, outside the Sterlite complex itself, everything now had assumed an almost zen-like calm. The Tamil Nadu government was forced by the sheer weight of public sentiment to order the closure of the plant, and it was now being guarded like a fortress, with police jeeps and officials milling around it, even as a bulky Varun – the police riot-control vehicle of choice in this part of the country – stood sentinel outside the gate with its water canons at the ready.

Police protection for Sterlite.

Police protection for Sterlite.

The gargantuan outline of the now shut-down plant, with its smokeless chimney stacks, brings to mind the Union Carbide factory unit, which continues to smoulder in the old city of Bhopal to this day. The gas leak from the carbide factory had killed thousands in 1984 and was then seen as a watershed moment that would lead to policy regulation and the exercise of political will to prevent another such disaster.  In his book Bhopal: The Inside Story, T R Chouhan, a worker in the factory, had documented the many signals of a disaster foretold that had emerged from the Union Carbide plant while it was in operation. He recalled how a plume of poison gas had leaked through a faulty joint and made its way to the sleeping neighbourhoods around the factory during one of his night shifts two years before the world’s biggest industrial disaster unfolded on the night of 2 December 1984.

At the Sterlite plant, there have been several such intimations of disaster, each of which have been documented in painstaking detail by local environmentalists. In 1997, a year after it was set up, there were two episodes of gas leaks which made several people in the vicinity grievously ill. In March 1999, 11 staff members of a nearby All India Radio station had to be hospitalised after breathing in the poisonous air emanating from the complex. More recently, after a major gas leak in March 2013, sulphur dioxide levels in one of Sterlite’s plants had touched a level almost three times the permissible limit.

If Union Carbide had ignored the 1982 leak, claiming everything was under control, Sterlite has been doing the same. The success with which it has done this also reflected the ability of its parent body, Vedanta, to influence policy-making at the highest levels in the country, given its deep pockets and the political connections assiduously built over the years.

Sterlite’s biggest violation of all, of course – as indeed that of Union Carbide a decade and a half earlier – was the most basic: the requirement that hazardous industries are not located in areas with dense human habitations. Tuticorin, where the factory is located, is the tenth most populous city in Tamil Nadu with a population of over 500,000. The Environment (Protection) Act, enacted in 1986 shortly after the Bhopal disaster, sets down “restrictions of areas” in which any industry can carry out operations and lays down “procedures and safeguards for the prevention of accidents which may cause environmental pollution.”  But Sterlite has been adept at bending the rules and regulations to its will. One of the many examples of this which environmentalist-journalist Nityanand Jayaraman has been documenting over the years concerns the height of its smoke stacks. A copper smelting plant of the capacity of Sterlite should have had chimney stacks measuring at least 123 metres, yet it has made do with ones measuring 60 metres.

Women gather for a meeting at Pandarampatti village.

Women gather for a meeting in Pandarampatti.

All those years ago, Union Carbide was careful to keep its publicity machine well-oiled, ingratiating itself with the local population, politicians and press by doling out freebies, organising cultural events and cricket matches and the like.  Sterlite’s publicity machine is a far more sophisticated affair. Its website is designed to persuade the world about its ‘vision’ – “to be the world’s most admired copper producer…” and ‘mission’ – “to ensure zero tolerance towards safety, environment and governance”.  It also carefully showcases the fact that it is India’s largest copper producer, accounting for 36 percent of the country’s total output, and contributing to “3.3 % of the GDP of Tamil Nadu”. The mainstream Indian media, especially the business newspapers, constantly present these figures in reports that subtly, or not-so-subtly, favour Sterlite – and the company’s audacious bid to double capacity, announced early this year, rode precisely on such a sentiment.

Even as late as March, when the anger against this proposed move was roiling the villages around the plant, Sterlite Copper gave a demand draft of INR 47 lakh (USD 68,620) to the residents of Milavittan village, which lies in its neighbourhood, so that it could secure a water connection from the Thoothukudi Corporation for itself and ensure “continuous drinking water”. It was a gesture loaded with irony considering that Sterlite’s 22 years of existence have resulted in the water in many wells in the environs of the plant ending up contaminated. In the very month that this cheque was issued, groundwater samples from Milavittan, tested by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), revealed dangerously high levels of lead. Yet, the official who handed out the cheque had, on that occasion, sermonised about how his company was focused on improving the standards of life of the common people in the region and that they should not be influenced by the allegations of a “few vested interests”.

The turnout of an estimated 200,000 protestors, who had tried to converge on the Thoothukudi collectorate on 22 May, was proof enough that Sterlite’s efforts at managing public perception were no longer working. “Moode, moode, Sterlite moode (Close it, close it, close Sterlite)” is a slogan that now unites a significant section of city residents, as well as those living in surrounding villages and towns.

The conspicuous difference between Bhopal and Thoothukudi is this: those who lived in the vicinity of Union Carbide in the late 1970s and early 1980s could not build up their capacities of resistance to the toxic presence in their midst until it was too late. In contrast, the people residing under the shadow of Sterlite Copper – perhaps with the hindsight that Bhopal provided – have been able to educate and organise themselves in a manner that could well emerge as a model of popular resistance to hazardous industries that recklessly disregard human well-being and environmental norms.

‘Copper for you, cancer for us’

The posters on the walls of the largely Dalit village of Pandarampatti, which lies about a kilometre and a half from Sterlite, were sharply political and provided compelling evidence of the level of popular awareness. Among yellowing posters still on walls were those declaring 22 May as the Day of Action, and which asked: “Life? Or death? Copper for you, cancer for us”. Another entreated the protestor not to return from the protest until Sterlite was shut down. Today, the poster is a chilling reminder than many indeed did not return home from the protest.

The most disturbing poster had the image of a toddler upon whose back was the darkened outline of factories spewing fumes and into whose stomach toxins flowed. The text in Tamil read: “People of Pandarampatti condemn the villainous Sterlite which is killing people by the thousands…We will win this battle. Let Sterlite fall. Let the Tamil earth revive.”

Posters in Pandarampatti village.

Posters in Pandarampatti.

Pandarampatti’s water has also been found, by the TNPCB, to be contaminated. Drinking water now has to be bought at INR 30 (USD 0.44) a pot of about ten litres. Handcarts on rubberised wheels carrying water in plastic pitchers that come in multiple colours are now a common sight. According to the villagers here, 20 years earlier, tomatoes, kothamali (coriander) and chillies would be grown in the fields around, but today, the high levels of toxicity in the soil and water have rendered farming impossible. Only the seemaikaruvelam (thorn bushes) can thrive here, and the people who once cultivated farmsteads have become coolies and contract workers elsewhere.

The prospect of gaining jobs in Sterlite has proved far from propitious for the people of this village. Many contract workers that Sterlite had hired from this village actually welcomed the company’s shutdown. Although they stood to lose a monthly income of INR 14,000 (USD 204.40), they are extremely conscious of the toll it has taken on their health. It is this hostility among local hires that led Sterlite to shop for workers from outside the state, and because these non-Tamil speaking workers lacked social links in Thoothukudi, little is known about their health status.

Sixty-one-year-old Kristi Amma (name changed) says that her every breath is a wheeze – “I feel as if my lungs are being held in a vice-like grip.” Sterlite would deny that its emissions have anything to do with the state of this elderly woman’s lungs – it has repeatedly defended itself in the past by pointing to other hazardous industries in the vicinity. While there can be no denying that the SIPCOT industrial belt houses innumerable units, many of which emit poisonous effluents and gases, people here argue that the situation became particularly dire after Sterlite moved in, given the scale of its operations and nature of copper smelting.

Said Lakshmi (name changed), in her early fifties, “We know how things were before Sterlite came up. Earlier people here had heard of the occasional case of cancer. Today, there are at least 15 cases of cancer in this village alone. When people in our families get cancer and we take them to hospital, the doctors ask whether we come from this region. They had seen a rise in the number of such patients from villages close to the plant.”

She talked about how, sometimes at night, she had seen clouds of orange fumes rising from the plant and how the air would later smells as if there was a dead rat in the skies, and said, “Premature deliveries are common here and even new-born babies suffer from chest infections.” She then offered a searing insight into the anti-Sterlite movement. “Why do you think women came out in such large numbers on 22 May? We were doing this for our future, for the future of our children.”

These are words that echo time and again in conversations with protestors. One resident of Therespuram, a Thoothukudi neighbourhood, sums it up with a rare passion, “Why are we protesting? Our air is poison. Our soil is poison. Our water is poison. Our seas are poison. We are fighting so that our children can live.” It is surreal to read mainstream media coverage on the anti-Sterlite movement focusing on job and revenue losses, copper shortages and the like at a time when words like these are pouring out of agitated people whose only fault is that they happened to live in a region that was chosen to site Sterlite Copper.

Among those moved by the energy of the anti-Sterlite protest was J Snowlin, of Lions Town, a neighbourhood dominated by fisher folk who go by the caste appellation of ‘fernando’ in these parts. It was Snowlin’s 17-year-old face that leapt out of the large posters in the vicinity that memorialised the 13 killed with the words “For those from this soil who fought, salute to their courage!” She was the youngest among them.

People gather around Snowlin's graveside.

People gather around Snowlin’s graveside.

Stories about Snowlin were narrated as if she was everybody’s child. People talked about how she would share the information she had on Sterlite with church congregations; how she was up early on the morning of 22 May to organise for the protest even though she loved to sleep late; how she and her friend, Infanta, had positioned themselves in the front of the procession; and how when the firing began near the Collectorate, her mother had wanted her to step back but she had disappeared into the frontlines. Her family members had to go through an agonising wait for her body with its bullet-shattered face. It was released to them only after a second post-mortem was conducted on it on the orders of the Madras High Court.

Snowlin’s funeral finally took place in this small corner of Thoothukudi, 12 days after her death. As the funeral procession made its slow way from the Sahaya Matha Church in Lions Town to the cemetery half a mile away, past the silent mourners who had gathered from miles around, a group of elderly men waited for her body next to a freshly dug grave. They spoke quietly and two themes dominated their conversation: justice for the victims of police excesses and the need to shut down the Sterlite plant permanently. “They use money power, even to change judges. What strength do we poor people have against them?” one of the older men among them queried despondently.

How will this encounter between the people and Sterlite Copper play out? Already, Sterlite is crying “sabotage” when news broke of a leak of sulphuric acid from one of the storage tanks of the shut-down plant. It has already framed the protests as the designs of those opposed to India emerging as one of the world’s largest producers of copper. So, will the old man’s words prove prescient? While Sterlite is a formidable adversary, the anti-Sterlite struggle has also found strength in numbers and the events of 22 May – despite repressive police actions against the protestors in the days that followed – have strengthened their sense of solidarity. At the public inquest held by civil-society groups, one activist is emphatic about the broad grassroots origin of the movement: “I want to state here that this movement is not confined to Christians or Hindus or Muslims, or to Dalits or to upper castes. This is about us, Tuticorinians. I also want to make another thing clear: we have no leaders; we lead ourselves.”

There is an intuitive realisation at the mass level that the greater good lies on their side of the fence, and that a factory that stains even the seashells on the shore cannot be allowed to destroy any more lives.

The writer, a Delhi-based journalist, was a part of the People’s Inquest into the Thoothukudi Police Firing, held in Tuticorin on 2 and 3 June, 2018.

One Response to “The People of Tuticorin versus Sterlite Copper”

  1. RAjesh says:

    I was a former employee of this plant
    No matter what explNation is given , they are habitual law breakers.

    They buy Govt & even can buy courts.

    Kodis to tuticorians
    You lost some lives bu have gained. Future, Freedom

    Freedom to breath

    Display on sidebar: yes

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