As the death toll in the Tuticorin violence rose to 13 Thursday and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh sought a report on the situation in the Tamil Nadu town, The Indian Express learnt that a sub-committee, recommended two months ago by a Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) expert panel to assess the environmental clearance (EC) granted to the Sterlite Copper plant of the Vedanta group in 2009, is yet to be constituted.
Ministry sources said a planned site visit has also been delayed in view of the protests against the plant — residents and activists have been seeking closure of the plant, citing pollution concerns.
The MoEF panel had made the recommendation for a sub-committee after receiving complaints of pollution. It was to include members from the expert panel which had noted that Sterlite Copper was “unable” to implement the facilities proposed in the environmental clearance it was granted.
An expert appraisal committee (EAC) member told The Indian Express that the MoEF had received word of “agitations” in the Tuticorin region. “The sub-committee was to be made up of members of the main committee but so far, it has not been constituted… nor made a visit to the site,” the member said.
“The EAC meeting had decided that a sub-committee will be set up and that it will visit the site but then there was news of agitations in the area.”
After a two-day meeting in March, the EAC had “recommended to constitute a sub-committee to assess the current status of implementation of EC dated 1st January 2009 and thereafter to consider the proposal for ToRs (terms of reference).”
It noted that the project proponent (Sterlite Copper) “is unable to implement the facilities proposed in the earlier EC granted within the valid period. Therefore, PP (project proponent) made an application for fresh ToR.” It also pointed out that the EAC had received a number of representations “expressing concerns about environmental issues related to the project.”
“Since the EAC received complaints of pollution in the areas surrounding the copper plant, the sub-committee’s task was to visit the site and have public consultations. The company (Sterlite Copper) had insisted on expanding the plant without public consultation,” the member said. “We have to go to the people. We have to interact with both sides,” the member said.
Environmentalist Nityanand Jayaram, who was among those who sent representations to the MoEF, said that over the last two months there has been no site visit undertaken by Environment Ministry representatives.
“The public consultations will reveal that the existing factory is untenable and the pollution is taking a heavy toll on the community,” he said.
An application filed by Tuticorin lawyer V Ramasubbu in the National Green Tribunal’s southern bench last year also pointed out “extensive and severe and continuous pollution of the air, water, soil and groundwater by discharging copper slag, toxic chemicals and effluents openly in the nearby Uppar Odai stream and surrounding areas.” Ramasubbu has since appealed the matter in the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said his ministry had sought a report from the Tamil Nadu government on the police firing in Tuticorin and the situation in the town. He also appealed to the people of Tuticorin to remain calm.
Singh said he was “deeply pained at the loss of precious lives” in Tuticorin. “My thoughts are with the bereaved families. I also pray for the speedy recovery of the injured. I appeal to the people in Tuticorin to remain calm and maintain peace and tranquility in the region,” he said.
Protests against the Vedanta plant have been on for several months but on Tuesday police opened fire on protesters after clashes. The DMK and other Opposition parties have called for a dawn-to-dusk bandh Friday in protest against the police action.
In Tuticorin, such is the public anger that elected representatives have not been able to visit the families of those killed or speak freely in public.
Tuticorin MP J J T Natterjee of the AIADMK blamed the firing on what he called the utter failure of police intelligence. “They had no preparation to control the crowd. I would say that Chief Minister didn’t do his job properly. Our people wanted closure of Sterlite Copper. Had that happened, these people wouldn’t have been killed,” he said.
“I am fully against Sterlite but I failed to attend the protests against the plant… When Amma (late J Jayalalithaa) was CM, I wrote a letter, warning her that people will turn against the party if we fail to close it (the plant). There was a major leak in 2013… and she ordered a shutdown.”
“ The problem is they (protesters) won’t listen to MPs. They will listen only to MLAs and ministers. We MPs are considered people who take care of Delhi affairs… I did my best. I raised it in Parliament. I met environment ministers in the state and at Centre. I had limitations,” Natterjee said.’
MLA P Geetha Jeevan of the DMK said: “This new forum which led the protest wanted all political parties out. There were no leaders. They called us ruling parties. They didn’t welcome DMK or AIADMK or BJP or Congress or any such party that ruled the state or Centre. We were culprits in their eyes since we were in power earlier.”
She too blamed the district administration for the police firing: “They are the culprits. They knew so many people were in the protest (march). But they didn’t prepare to control the crowd.”
“Air, water and land are being polluted. But all these have to be proved by the government, with an expert committee. That never happened,” she said.