What happened at Thoothukudi?
At least 12 people were killed and scores of others including women and children injured in a brutal police attack and firing on people agitating against Sterlite Copper, a subsidiary of global mining conglomerate Vedanta, in the city of Thoothukudi, in Tamil Nadu. Videos that have surfaced on social media show policemen directly firing at the protesters and one even shows a policeman saying “At least kill one person!”. The police repression is clearly an attempt by the State to scare people from protesting against the company.
Sterlite Copper is the Indian copper-producing unit of Vedanta Ltd., a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, a mining and metals conglomerate founded by Anil Agarwal, whose current wealth is estimated to be $3.3 billion while the company’s wealth stands at $12.9 billion.
Protests against Sterlite Copper began from the time operations were initiated. The complaints raised against it have led to several shut-downs but all for short periods.
The protesters have two demands: the closure of the copper smelter plant of Sterlite in the region and a halt to the expansion plans of the plant to other regions in Thoothukudi.
Since the plant began operations in 1997, it has been accused of multiple environmental and human rights violations, causing massive health and livelihood problems to the residents of Thoothukodi.
In March 2013, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) identified a gas leakage in the plant, which led the Supreme Court to set up a monitoring committee to look into the allegations made. The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee found that the allegations were true and that the plant is massively polluting the environment and causing health hazards along with running the plant from the time it commenced operations by misrepresenting and suppressing material facts. However, they decided to charge Vedanta with a fine of only Rs 100 crore citing the plant’s contribution to the cargo volume of Tuticorin port, and for generating a huge revenue to the Central and State governments despite the severity of their own findings. This amount too, is a pittance considering the revenue that Vedanta Ltd., generated smelting copper in India and Australia between 2000 and 2017 is $3.62 billion.
Copper production by smelting and refining is an industry which produces toxic byproducts like lead, arsenic and sulphur oxides that adversely impact soil, water and air quality. According to Vedanta itself, the plant at Thoothukudi has one of the lowest costs of production among smelting copper plants in the world, which raises the question as to whether there have been investments in operations to reduce emissions and take action to control the waste produced.