Sterlite – Why TN is up in flames?

Sterlite – Why TN is up in flames?

June 5, 2018 0 By Shrikanth T

Rajdeep Sardesai some time back coined a term called ‘tyranny of distance’. He used it when the national media was covering non-events in the capital region, ignoring the important ones down South. He sportingly included himself in that group that overlooks the tapering end (pun intended) of this country.

But, over a period, media has taken a conscious effort to highlight issues that are forefront in the South and the people down there also seems to have understood the knack of attracting attention to them with a lot of theatrics. However, the mainstream media is still hung up on gladiatorial fights in their studio floors. And the participants in those shows come with preconceived notions reflecting the politics of whom they represent. And the ‘Nation that wants to know’ never gets to know the depth of the issues or the sufferings of the real people.

The issue of Sterlite is a victim of such politics. With all the essential ingredients of a Kollywood potboiler, no wonder it has been garnering media. There is this uncaring corporate, the corrupt politicians, the double-tongued  agents and agent provocateurs, the rising of the suffering and the blood-soiled climax orchestrated by a Government in cahoots with the bad elements and the space for many heroes to emerge.

As any such movie with such compelling elements would, this also cuts a long time back for a flashback. What is today’s sorry story of the residents of Thoothukudi had a positive spin 25 years back. That was when the residents of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra came together as one to chase Sterlite out of their soil notwithstanding the huge employment opportunities it would have created for them. In 1992 Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation allotted 600 acres to Sterlite aka Vedanta Resources  for setting up a copper smelting facility and within an year (1993) the company had to retract with their tail between their legs because the Ratnagiri people agitated for one long year and came out winners in Round 1.

The Thoothukudi people weren’t that lucky neither were they that aware. Vedanta found a willing partner in the Government of Tamil Nadu which within an year (in 1994) through its Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board issued a NOC and asked them to conduct an Environment Impact Assessment. But the Ministry of Environment & Forests could not bother such minor things like an assessment and they issued a clearance even before the EIA report was submitted. The Government added some riders to their clearance and Vedanta promptly ignored them and no one would be unduly bothered. And the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve was the first casualty. The factory was constructed within 14 km of this eco-sensitive region while the Govt had stated that it should be situated at least 25 km away. In 1996, the ruling side of the Government changed but the insensitivity remained intact. The new govt issued a licence to operate the plant in 1996. And the first complaint of pollution came up within an year. People in that region started complaining of headache, coughing and choking because of the smoke. And there was also a gas leak soon.

Then started the long history of a court battle between the environmentally conscious people and bodies on one side and the factory on the other side. In 1998, the factory was shut down for a few days for the first of many times to come. The court didn’t find it difficult to rule so, because Vedanta has broke every possible condition that was laid on it for the licencing. Within a week of this ruling the HC changed its order and asked a Nagpur based institute to conduct a study. The institute indicted the factory on every violation that was in contention. But seemed to have a change of heart within 45 days of the first report.

Countless incidents of mishaps, complaints and court battles continued to happen and the Honorable Supreme Court got involved at a point. They were caustic in their observation and they levied a fine of 100 crores on the factory for all their violations but they refused to shut down the plant citing that they are the major contributors of copper to the nation. Meanwhile the suffering of the people continued. While it is an irrefutable fact that people do suffer, there have been no authentic studies of ‘Before’ and ‘After” effects, and also no viable mechanism of isolating the effects of Sterlite’s emissions as Thoothukudi happens to be the home for SIPCOT Industrial Complex which houses many other industries.

While Sterlite has been operating with impunity, the latest trouble started when they got ambitious with their expansion plans, which alarmed the local residents. They started protesting against it peacefully 3 months back and every day people flocked to register their opposition against the move. And the plant was shut down on 27th March citing annual maintenance. And the Government sensing the mood of the people, refused to renew the license that expired on 31st March 2018. The company promptly went to court and the next hearing is tomorrow.

While things seem to be moving in the right direction to make the company accountable, where did this violent protest come from? Thanks to the political parties that are increasingly frustrated with their inability to unseat the existing government that operates without a majority. They are seen as being puppeteered by the Central Govt which has no representation from the state and also just has an abysmal vote share. So, this opportunity to create chaos was God-sent to them and the party that leads the protest from the forefront is the one that provided the license and also graced the inauguration in 1996. And then there are unconfirmed rumors about funded splinter groups that is into destabilizing the region. And again a rumor about foreign NGO’s that uses the Church as a conduit. While the last two do not have any form of substantiation but enough speculation from the interested stakeholders, the role of political parties that abetted the root cause of pollution is documented evidence.

And then Tamil Nadu facing a sudden void from two of its strong leaders’ absence (with one having expired and another too incapacitated to be in active politics) is yearning for some meaningful leadership and there are plenty of claimants for that position, starting from film stars to letter pad political parties. Some of these people infiltrated the protesting groups on 22nd May, unleashed violence at the Collector’s Office, staff quarters of Sterlite where families were residing and that resulted in 13 people being killed in police firing. The police despite being aware of such an eventuality was still unprepared and when violence began they retaliated with violence, albeit with better equipment of violence. Now the theatre has shifted to the ‘rights & wrong’ of police action and ‘photo ops’ at the hospital for the politicians and raging debates devoid of any rationale in social media, while the air is still unclean and the residents of Thoothukudi who were protesting about health concerns leading to terminal diseases, had to prove it with the irrefutable death of 13 of their residents.

The whole episode brings forth many questions that begs answers that should arise out of consensus from the polity and citizenry. They are

  • Is this the price a nation state should pay for industrialization?
  • Is it alright to sacrifice one village for the country?
  • What is the accountability of the bodies that function as Ombudsmen?
  • What is the accountability of the political leadership that encourages industry and later flipflops?
  • Is India a dumping ground for developed nations? (Most of Australia’s copper was smelted in this plant)
  • Are protests not an integral feature of a democratic nation?
  • What is the accountability of a government that takes its citizens’ lifes?
  •  How does one check and prevent divisive elements in the country hijacking genuine causes for their vested interests?
  • Where is the country’s unemployed going to find opportunities if industries do not flourish?
  • Does the citizenry have the right to fight the highest court in the country that had legalized such industries?
  • Is there a sense of foreboding that people in the South possess against the central hegemony?
  • What are the healers that we have to anoint on the dissatisfied citizenry?

These are questions that are essential to be answered to preserve a sane outlook and the integrity of one of the youngest nations that is a shining beacon in the world by its democracy, diversity and conservative modernism.