At least nine persons were killed and another nine seriously wounded when police opened fire Tuesday following clashes with hundreds marching to the district collectorate in Tuticorin, protesting the proposed expansion of a copper smelter of Sterlite Copper, a unit of the Vedanta group.
More rounds were fired again in the evening to break up the protests. This was the hundredth day of the protests with residents and activists demanding closure of the plant over pollution concerns.
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Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami, who confirmed the death of nine people in “police action”, said in a statement that the protesters took out a procession towards the collectorate in defiance of prohibitory orders clamped in the area. Ordering a judicial inquiry into the incident, Palaniswami announced compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the families of each of the dead. Governor Banwarilal Purohit condoled the deaths.
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This morning, over 15,000 people began marching towards the collectorate when the clashes erupted. While DGP T K Rajendran declined to disclose details, a police officer, who was present at the site, said trouble began after the protesters entered the collectorate premises. “Police had no option but to open fire because they would have ransacked the district headquarters,” he said.
Other than the nine dead, nine were battling for life in hospital. “Most had bullet marks on their face, chest or abdomen. One of them is a girl aged 17,” said a doctor attached to the Tuticorin district medical office. Three of the dead were from the village of Cruz Puram.
“We were forced to respond because there were intelligence information that they were marching to the residence of the district superintendent of police,” a senior officer said, adding that the homes of the SP and Collector were on the route of the protest march.
S Raja, youth wing leader of the Tamil Nadu Merchants’ Association and one of the leaders of the anti-Sterlite protest, said the police fired on a crowd that included women and children who had been protesting peacefully for weeks and months.
Among the dead was 24-year-old Maniraj who had been at the forefront of peaceful protests. “He was already very upset because his friend died of cancer yesterday. He attended the funeral this morning, returned home to take a bath and rushed to join the protests,” Raja said.
There were two protests in Tuticorin Tuesday against the Sterlite plant — one headed by a group that had led the protests for three decades and another by Makkal Adhikaram, a radical Left group.
Following the firing, people gathered in hundreds at SAV playground shortly after noon. Fathima Babu, a 65-year-old who retired as a college professor, said: “I have been a part of this for the last 25 years. This incident could have been avoided. I don’t know why the authorities failed to handle it strategically.”
Protests have been on since 1999 with residents demanding the closure of the Sterlite copper smelter. Word was awaited from the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court on a petition seeking closure of the plant. “The hearing got over on May 17 and the judgment was reserved,” Raja said.