It took a brazen exercise of what sociologists since Max Weber refer to as the state’s “monopoly of violence” by Tamil Nadu authorities to bring our attention to a problem that had been affecting the local residents of Tuticorin for over two decades. Since this tragic incident, it took hardly a week for the state government to order the closure of Sterlite Copper, the copper smelter plant owned by the UK-based Vedanta Resources plc, though demands for its closure had started since its opening in 1994. While the shutdown of the plant may seem like a satisfactory conclusion for our faculties of moral judgement, this series of events should also serve as an opportunity to further question our own sense of conscience, and in turn, the basis of our moral reasoning.
We all like to consider ourselves as beings who take pride in being more rational than emotional. This is also a default position we ideally want to juxtapose on our institutions — to not succumb to public sentiments and take objective and reasonable decisions. Yet, when the decision by the Tamil Nadu state government to close the plant appears to be a classic case of giving into public sentiments, most of us attribute to this decision a sense of “reasonableness”.
What is at the heart of this “reasonableness”? The state government’s declared reasoning behind the plant closure are “environmental concerns” and “consideration of the interests and sentiments of people of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin)”. It is evident that the latter concern overrides the former in the government’s decision-making calculus. This is perfectly fine as long as it is not motivated by a desire to secure electoral gains, as opposed to being an expression of genuine concern for all the parties involved in the infrastructure project. However, such modes of reasoning still do not address why the concern only cropped up after a blatant display of power that led to 13 deaths. In other words, why is it that “death”, and that too in a visceral fashion, has become the primary motivator to exercise our conscience?
Studies by the National Environmental Engineering Institute had initially pointed out instances of environmental violations by Sterlite Copper, which they later overturned. Another study by a group of researchers from Tirunelveli Medical College showed an “increased prevalence” of “respiratory diseases” and “ENT morbidity”, when samples of approximately 50,000 residents of Tuticorin were compared to those in two adjoining districts. Yet, the National Green Tribunal felt that their investigation did not find any “scientific evidence” that suggested an increase in emissions from Sterlite Copper beyond the permitted amount.
Things have not changed much when it comes to “scientific evidence”, yet the government is ready to shut down the plant. Why? A sensible answer is that there is an increase in resistance to the plant operations today. But is this increase merely in terms of numbers or did the protesters gain any moral authority that they had lacked before? The colonial-style shooting and the deaths it caused have undoubtedly evoked public sentiment in support of the protests. This may be because we have, at the core of our moral reasoning, the principle of inviolability of our “sacred” life. When someone’s right to life is violated arbitrarily, our reasoning automatically detects the violator as the antagonist. But there is more to this. Our moral faculties also seem to sense a spirit of “nobility” in those people who are willing to die for a cause. In some ways, we attribute “truth” to their position, the ones who hold onto their beliefs even in the face of death. They become truthful, at least to their beliefs, and we begin to accept their concerns as genuine or at the very least deserving attention. We stop seeing them as being part of someone else’s plans, the usual suspects being political or “anti-national” elements within or outside the country. Their willingness to stand by their conviction against mighty coercive forces elicits respect in our mental and emotional faculties.
Sadly, the climate change disaster that has already hit us does not seem to evoke the strong moral response that martyrs do. It seems to bear little resemblance to the images of annihilating catastrophes that Hollywood occasionally conjures up. Instead, the less-fascinating realities of unemployment, displacement, migration, heat stroke, drought, etc seem to be the initial brushstrokes of our great derangement. And, maybe, it is this lack of visceral imagery of suffering that makes it difficult for us to appreciate the real plight of people impacted by climate change. In some ways, their story is similar to those thousands of residents in Tuticorin suffering from non-fatal “respiratory diseases”. And it would be a pity if we continue to wait for another spectacle, to do the right thing.