Tamil Nadu government shuts down Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi

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As many as 13 protesters had died in police firing against the plant on May 22

Photo Credit: Reuters

By Umer Beigh / The Dawn News / May 31, 2018

The government of the State of Tamil Nadu in India has decided to permanently shut down the Sterlite copper smelting plant that is owned by a subsidiary of the Vedanta Group in Thoothukudi district.  This follows massive protests against the plant last week during which 13 people were killed and police repression was let loose in the area.

The government claimed that the plant was closed in deference to public sentiments. However, the same State government had also justified the use of force against the protesters, branding them people who were incited by anti-social elements.

“I’ve no trust in the intentions of this government (headed by the Chief Minister Eddapaddi K Palaniswami). Even though this government has passed this order, the central government is always ready to go against our interests. Sterlite CEO Ramnath is saying with so much confidence that they’ll resume work soon, what does he mean by that then,” one of the victims who was injured at Thoothukudi Collector’s Office on May 22, said.

Tens of thousands of people were part of protests from February this year, demanding a halt to the expansion of Sterlite copper smelting unit and the closure of the existing plant. Ever since the plant was set up in 1996, it has been accused of causing serious environmental degradation in the area. The plant was shut down on a few occasions but was reopened. At least 17 people are reported to have died from injuries directly associated with the plant.

On May 22, the police, claiming that the protesters were damaging public property, opened fire on them. The state violence happened alongside mass arrests amid a clampdown on the media and an internet shutdown. Videos and photos of the event, however, did go public with one of a policeman standing atop a bus taking aim at the protesters evoking large-scale condemnation. Another video had a policeman declaring that “at least one protester must die.”

The public outcry in the aftermath of the incident saw the government going on the backfoot. The Palaniswami government in the State has been accused of being a puppet of the Central government and many protesters and activists have seen the hand of the Centre in the suppression of the protests. Both the ruling conservative Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress, which was in power from 2014-14, have been complicit in Sterlite continuing its operations.

On Wednesday, the police violence yet against became a subject of intense debate when   actor-turned politician Rajinikanth visited a hospital in Thoothukudi as a “goodwill gesture.” Rajinikanth, who has a massive following among Tamils and even abroad, had recently announced the launch of a political party. At the same time, he is perceived to be close to the ruling BJP. However, those hoping for a strong statement from the actor were disappointed when he took a confusing stand. On the one hand, he termed the state’s use of force saddening. At the same time, he also seemed to agree with the state’s narrative, alleging that anti-social elements who were part of the protests were responsible for the deaths.

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