Guest post by BOBBY KUNHU
On 22nd May 2018, in what cannot be imagined even in a dictatorial regime, the police in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu – a South Indian state opened fire to kill, on a group of peaceful protesters marching towards the district administration office demanding denial of permission for expansion and closure of the existing copper smelting plant of Sterlite. Sterlite is a subsidiary of the London based corporation Vedanta, which has been dumping toxic waste all over this town since 1998 resulting in widespread health hazards including increase in reports of cancer. This massacre is unimaginable even in the worst dictatorial regimes, because not only were known national and international legal norms and protocols in crowd/riot control violated, but also because the video clippings that have surfaced after the massacre seem to indicate sufficient premeditation – with a plainclothes sniper on the top of a van being ordered to kill at least one person.
To understand why things came to such an head on collision and the roles of the various stakeholders, it would be important to delve into the history of Vedanta and its Thoothukudi operations. Vedanta Resources Plc. is a London based mining company with operations in India, Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Australia, Liberia, South Africa and India through its many subsidiary companies. It’s largest operations are in India – which also happens to be the place where the company was founded and the birthplace of the founder. The company’s mineral interests include copper, zinc, aluminum, iron ore, lead, silver, oil and gas. Here, it would be important to point out that the founder of Vedanta is Anil Aggarwal who belongs to the business caste which controls most of Corporate India and also has deep kinship connections in business and politics.
Vedanta’s quick success especially in the stock market has been due to a reputation it has built for quickly turning around businesses and showing profits. The secret to this – as has been recorded by many independent market observers and civil society organizations and bodies is its brazen violations of basic environmental, human rights and ethical norms in bulldozing its business into profits especially in corrupt polities. But this has also lead to large scale public unrest, protests and litigations against the company.
While Vedanta has multiple metal interests, and has been accused of large scale breach of law, human rights and environmental norms in almost all its operations, here it will be sufficient to go through its copper history because the Thoothukudi massacre is a direct result of Vedanta’s copper interests. Vedanta’s search for a site to locate a copper smelting plant in India started in the early 90s. After unsuccessful scouting initially, the company was given 500 acres of land in the scenic coastal town of Ratnagiri for setting up a 60000 tonne copper smelter and associated facilities. But this attempt came a cropper with a strong peoples movement backed by indictment of a court appointed expert committee headed by environmentalist Rashmi Mayur that forced the Government of Maharashtra to order the company to diversify into a non polluting venture or vacate. Given that the heat in Ratnagiri was making it too difficult for Vedanta, they pulled out and moved into Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu in 1994, where they were welcomed with open arms by the then government of the state. While both the major political parties in Tamil Nadu vied with each other in making Sterlite cosy and comfortable – the foundation stone of the plant having been laid by Jayalalitha of the AIADMK and the plant commissioned by her arch rival Karunanidhi of the DMK. This along with the clout that the company enjoyed with rival union governments that have been in power since Vedanta the 90s, with one former union finance minister even having served on the company’s board of directors, Sterlite started operations without any environmental compliance that had to be taken from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board or an the statutory environment impact assessment, seemingly with the blessings of the union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Despite protests from the locals on the possible hazard from the copper smelting units including arsenic and sulphur dioxide waste that could destroy the environment of the land and prove toxic to the populace that started right from the time that Sterlite started operations, periodic accidents and multiple litigations – Sterlite forged ahead without any blocks. Whenever they were shut down through government or judicial orders, they managed to come back within days. Even the Supreme Court of India has been overly lenient in its approach to Sterlite. In an order dated 13th April, 2013 – the Supreme Court found that Sterlite was guilty of almost all violations that it had been accused of and reprimanded it while surprisingly allowing it to continue production after paying a measly fine of INR 100 Crores (around USD 15 million).
A few years back I had visited Thoothukudi with Samarendra Das & Miriam Rose of Foil Vedanta. Though I have visited this quaint harbor town quite a number of times and worked with a few political and activist groups there, this was the first time that I was seeing the city through the lens of the corporate occupation that it was undergoing. Though this occupation by Vedanta through its copper smelting units – Sterlite – was present since 1994, I had never noticed it before – in the way I noticed it during this trip. The sense of the omnipotence of Vedanta became clearer as I talked to people – residents, workers – affected directly or indirectly by the unethical practices of Vedanta and toxic dumping of waste from its smelting unit in this town. Every corner of the city was covered with Vedanta – the parks, the public spaces, the government hospital, the collectorate and most importantly the official and unofficial dump yards, the air particles hanging over the city, the water bodies – Vedanta was omnipotent. Like I never noticed it in any of my previous visits to this beautiful coastal town – many of its own residents were also not noticing the danger of the ticking time bomb they were sitting on.
Except for few activists and residents directly affected by Vedanta, it was difficult to gather people to see the dangers this company was posing to the town environmentally and politically. The town was run by the company, the government, the political parties, the media – almost everybody in the payroll of the company or scared of taking it on. And there was no direct evidence because of the underhand methods of Vedanta
But the tables turned as people started mobilizing – bigger political parties in the opposition were forced to acknowledge a problem – even if they had been bankrolled by Vedanta in the past. The immediate cause was the sanction given to Sterlite to expand their production capacity and a piece of land that was given to the company for that purpose by SIPCOT (State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamilnadu Ltd), TNCPB, as usual turning a blind eye and the company starting its expansion work. The protests went on peacefully for a hundred days surprisingly drawing people from all walks of life. The spontaneous mobilization and the size, strength and determination of the protesters seemed to have shocked both Sterlite and the state. Further the numbers seemed to be swelling every passing day and the protesters were clear that they weren’t backing away until Sterlite closes operations.
And things came to a boil on May 22nd when an estimated 200000 people marched towards the collectorate to mark the 100th day of protests. The administration very well knew that the protesters will mark the 100th day and the numbers expected were huge. The next news that came out of Thoothukudi was that the police had opened fired and massacred a large number of people – and most of those dead were shot at the head or chest. The videos that started pouring out clearly showed evidences of the possibility of the attack being planned with snipers taking doing targeted shooting on the protesters. Further not a single protocol laid down under the Criminal Procedure Code for resorting to firing in a protest situation was followed. The speculative question that the protesters and started asking was whether the state had acted on behest of Vedanta to bully the people into silence.
As of the last count 14 people had died in police firing. Even if the crowd turned violent as some sections of the media have reported (without even bothering to consider investigating whether the violence was instigated), couldn’t the police hav/e used lesser means of force to disperse them. Where is the proof that there was a threat to police life? How many police personnel were injured and what are the nature of their injuries? In fact, a camera has caught a policeman being ordered to kill at least one person. What does that order mean? What were the weapons that were seized from the protesters? These are some of the questions the state has been avoiding till now. These simple questions would have exposed the conspiracy, if any, and the reticence of the government in taking action is only increasing suspicions of male fide intent on its part. Some of the mainstream Indian media has also been complicit in trying to turn the focus away from the inexcusable massacre begging the question from the families of those dead and injured whether what happened in Thoothukudi is that the state declared a one way war against the citizens on behalf of a multinational corporation!
Instead of bullying the local populace into submission, the massacre not only further enraged the local population, but also got the Sterlite operations in Thoothukudi under the scanner of international media. While initially Vedanta/Sterlite maintained a partial silence expressing condolence to those dead – the initial fire fighting was left to the state that was fumbling under tremendous public pressure. In a knee jerk reaction the state first cut electricity to the Sterlite plant and later issued a Government Order (GO) closing the plant under the Water Act on 28th May. On 29th May, in another order SIPCOT withdrew the land that had been allotted to Sterlite. Both these actions were done to placate the citizens of Thoothukudi.
However, though these orders came as a relief after the catastrophic last few days, they are fraught with dangers and further illegalities that threaten the peace of Thoothukudi and will not end the standoff between the company and people. First of all, any GO in India has to be reasoned and principles of natural justice and procedure established by law has to be followed before any action can be taken. This means that the government should have given a chance to Sterlite to present its case before action was taken which gives Sterlite the maneuverability to challenge this order legally and get the order stayed. It is possible that the government can – if it wants to – argue that given the urgency of the situation, both in terms of environmental impact and law and order defend the legality of the GO. However, both the GO and the SIPCOT order are so weakly and badly reasoned omitting all the major violations done by the company and have been recorded by no less than the Supreme Court, that it almost makes one suspect whether the government is facilitating a path for Sterlite to come back after successfully challenging the order once the dust has settled down on the massacre and it has faded from public memory sufficiently. Given that there is no evidence linking Sterlite to the 22nd May massacre directly – and even if there is, given the state’s reluctance to investigate the same – the massacre itself will not have any legal bearing on whether the plant gets reopened and Sterlite gets permission to restart its expansion project.
In the meantime, the government has not yet moved an inch in terms of coming out with what happened on 22nd May and fixing immediate and long term responsibility except for the ex gratia payments of 1.5 Lakhs to 20 Lakhs – in the hope that people will forget the incident when monetarily compensated. The hope for that is negligible as one of the injured clearly remonstrated Sellur Raju, a member of the ruling party on camera saying that he is willing to pay double of what the government was offering them on the condition of delivery of justice. The scars of this kind of violence usually run deeper. I had an opportunity to see the one of the FIRs that has been filed at the instance of one of the Tehsildars who allegedly issued the firing order (which by itself is legally unusual) – the FIR against unnamed people accuses the protesters of instigating violence and justifies the massacre as self defence – making it amply clear that the state isn’t in a mood take or assign responsibility and in all probability may also go the extra length to protect those who were responsible for the massacre. There seems to be no move to investigate the involved officials for murder as should be procedurally done and they can of course be defended and go free if they actually followed the procedure established by law. Since, prima facie, this doesn’t seem to be the case, the state seems to be desperate to cover itself at least in front of the international media and the closure of Sterlite is a temporary reprieve towards this. The sword of violent reprisal has been left hanging on the heads of citizens who want to protest by this very inaction of the state.
On the other, let us look at the effect of this GO on Vedanta and how it would react. Be it in Zambia or India. In Zambia, it is continuing to fight its battles despite multiple legal and administrative losses. Vedanta is not known to let go easily of milking dry whatever resources it can lay its hands on, by hook or crook. Even earlier when Sterlite was closed many times including a gas leak in March 2013, where one person died – the TNCPB closed the plant only to reopen it later. As mentioned earlier, in the Supreme Court the company won a huge reprieve where it had to pay a measly sum of Rs. 100 crores as fine and continue operations. We should remember that this company has huge resources with which to fight its case way up to the Supreme Court and given the track record of the TNPCB which has been bending backwards for the company – it isn’t likely to put up a stiff opposition and the citizens of Thoothukudi will be forced to put in all their resources into multiple fights which could go in any direction. There is already a case pending in the Supreme Court.
On top of this let’s look at the kind of political clout that this company has across party lines. If Jayalalitha welcomed Sterlite into Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi inaugurated the plant. The company is one of the biggest donors to the BJP and the Congress and it had P. Chidambaram on its board of directors. The political investment in Vedanta can be summed up by the very fact that this company – as of 2016 – is the second biggest bank defaulter and owes various Indian banks a whopping sum of Rs. 1.04 lakh crores, second only to Anil Ambani led Reliance group. It is unlikely that Anil Aggarwal’s political and business friends will allow him to sink that easily with all this money in his hands – it would be a scandal that would shake the very core of Indian polity and economy.
Leaving the state and the protesters to battle it out, Sterlite aggressively started its battle to reenter production and expansion on the long term pulling all its publicity machinery together. It has started planting stories and narratives in the mainstream media – especially those that claim credibility on two counts. First, it is using its permanent employees to paint a demonic picture of the protesters and draw narratives of how threatening the crowd was that it necessitated the state action. These narratives also drop broad hints at conspiratorial foreign hands and/or radical groups in instigating the violence. On the second count, senior executives of the company including Anil Aggarwal who owns the major stake are making themselves available for exclusive interviews painting themselves as victims of the piece and strategically trying to put the blame on both the protesters and the state. These stories that have started appearing in the last couple of days express confidence that the Sterlite plant will be back in business on one hand, and spare no effort to delegitimize all those who have been trying to expose malpractices of Vedanta globally and locally.
Social media is also being used extensively where facts are fudged and it would be difficult not to place responsibility where it belongs, in spreading divisive and polarising content to counter the global sympathy that the protesters are getting. One such forward that has been doing the rounds accuses Church of England as the main conspirator in instigating the protesters because of a three year old argument where the Church had walked out on Vedanta, and it is being alleged that the ulterior motive of the Church is to dislodge Sterlite and thus deny employment to a large number of the locals. But the truth is that Sterlite has a proven track record of unethical and unsafe labor practices which employs less than 3500 people on its payroll – and many of them from outside Thoothukudi. It is also being rumored that the company is trying to break the local anti-Sterlite movement on caste and ideological lines
It has been a pattern across India for multinational mining and metal companies to fight their battle for profit using the state and its apparatus as a shield. Vedanta itself is known to have used this strategy in the multiple mining and production locations it has across India. Thoothukudi is no different. So, I would say that the people of Thoothukudi, along with those who are offering solidarity should brace themselves for a long and hard David-Goliath kind of battle!
The author is a lawyer and writer