The killing of 13 people protesting against the Sterlite copper smelting plant in Tuticorin was termed `unfortunate’ by Tamil Nadu chief minister EK Palaniswami and `inevitable’ by one of his ministers. The manner in which the police opened fire on an unarmed crowd protesting the pollution of groundwater through the dumping of copper slag from the plant,is deeply disturbing and brings back memories of strong-arm tactics against workers in the early days of capitalism, according to The Hindustan Times.
The police could have resorted to less violent methods to dispel the crowds but instead chose extreme force. There have been protests against the plant earlier as well; the firing happened on the 100th day of the current agitation against it; clearly, there is a huge trust deficit between the company and residents of Tuticorin.
In 2013, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered the plant to be shut after a gas leak. That order was subsequently revoked and the company was in the process of expanding its operations, something the Madras high court has now halted. The company would have done well to take people of the area into confidence and factor in their concerns, many of which are valid. Across the world, copper smelting leads to the groundwater becoming contaminated with arsenic, lead, selenium and aluminium, all of which are detrimental to people’s health and which experts feel has contributed to a higher incidence of cancer in the area.
The Tamil Nadu government’s handling of the situation, its inability to gauge the mood of the people and its disregard for their concerns is worrying. The state government which has been caught up in faction fighting ever since the death of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa could have worked towards an amicable solution to the problem, but it has made no attempt to do so.
Even now, the government is trying to downplay the seriousness of the situation and justify the police action as being due to the protests turning violent. Protestors claim some turned violent after unprovoked police firing.
If Sterlite wants to continue operating its factory in Tuticorin it will have to address the concerns of the local populace. If the government wants to resolve the issue, it has to constructively facilitate a discussion between the company and the residents of the city keeping in mind that its responsibilities to people and the environment outweight any obligations, real or perceived, it may have to a corporation.