The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board announcing the closure of the Sterlite copper smelter plant in Thoothukkudi on Thursday has provided some relief to local residents, who have been protesting against a hugely resourceful corporate group and government agencies. However, it’s impossible to predict whether it will lead to a permanent end to the problem, because the plant has been shut down in the past as well.
People and environmentalists have been on the warpath even before the plant, which was aiming to become the second largest copper smelter in the world, became operational in the late 1990s. There were protests against the establishment of the plant due to its potential to cause damage to the environment, and affect the lives of people, as early as the mid-1990s.
The agitation has continued all these years, even as the smelter went on to supply half of India’s copper needs. The fact that copper smelters are among the worst polluting industries, that emit a number of toxic and corrosive chemicals, has been proven right time and again by agitators and activists. However, the plant continued to remain operational, despite the occasional legal setbacks and roadblocks.
It’s not without reason that a poorly industrialised India is the fourth largest copper smelter in the world.
While environmentalists and people who live in the Thoothukkudi plant’s vicinity have been trying to shut it down due to its widespread pollution, Vedanta, the London-based mining and metals giant that owns the plant, wanted to double production. The company wanted to build India’s largest smelter, second only to a Chinese plant in terms of output. This double jeopardy is what led to the current agitation in which 12 people lost their lives due to police firing.
Despite its latest setback, Vedanta is unlikely to pack up and leave, because the factory is a huge money-spinner for the company. It has been operational for three decades, allegedly in collusion with various regulatory agencies. Whenever it was found wanting, the plant would find relief. So despite a series of objections, closures and reprimands from various quarters—including a Rs 100 crore penalty imposed by the Supreme Court for polluting the environment—it remained operational.
The audacity of the company to go ahead with its capacity-doubling plan, when there are serious charges and there is an ongoing agitation, indicates the level of possible support from various agencies, including the Centre and politicians. Apparently, there were a number of alleged procedural and jurisdictional manipulations done to obtain clearance for the expansion.
The similarities with Kudankulam
In terms of the scale and nature of the agitation, Thoothukkudi bears a striking resemblance to the uprising against the setting up of a nuclear plant in Kudankulam a few years ago. Tens of hundreds of people—under the banner of PMANE (People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy) and a local committee—rose against the plant while it was close to being completed in 2012. However, the then state government of J Jayalalithaa crushed the agitation when negotiations with protestors fell through.
Both the central and state government were of the view that the nuclear plant, on which $3 billion had already been spent, posed no threat, and was of tremendous value to the state and country. The state government initially seemed to support the agitation, but later did a volte-face. The agitation was shut down by the police, and hundreds of people were booked under various sections that went on to disrupt their lives.
However, there is a major difference between Kudankulam and Thoothukkudi.
In Kudankulam, only people who lived in the vicinity, environmentalists and civil society activists opposed the plant. The rest of Tamil Nadu, including major political parties, welcomed it because the state was facing a serious power crisis. The 1000 megawatts of power that the plant immediately promised, and another 1000 megawatts that was to follow in the near future, were irresistible and eclipsed the anxiety of the protestors.
With no visible pollution, people in the state were willing to overlook the local residents’ fear of a nuclear disaster, when the central and state governments said the fear was unfounded. In fact, there were rallies in support of the plant while the local residents, who were mostly fisherfolk, continued to live their lives in fear.
It is for the same reasons that when the final police crackdown broke the back of the agitation, there was no major pushback from other parts of the state, or political parties, In fact, the Congress, which termed the firing in Thoothukkudi a “massacre of Tamils”, even held protests demanding the early commissioning of the plant.
In contrast, the entire state seems to be supporting the agitation against Sterlite Copper for many reasons. The most prominent of them is the pollution that’s so visible, and for which the plant has been pulled up time and again. Smelter plants are notorious for various toxic emissions that can pollute air, water and soil, and hence directly affect nature and the health of people. There are court cases against such plants in various parts of the world, and in the case of Sterlite Copper it has been endorsed by various studies, and even the Supreme Court.
Secondly, unlike electricity, copper is not an essential commodity, and hence doesn’t find any connect with the people. The only section of people that may support the company’s cause are those who work there, and their families. Political parties have been playing a double game, but know that ultimately they cannot ignore public perception.
So far, it has been an unequal power game in which the state failed to be non-partisan. Has the loss of lives, the intensity of the agitation and the adverse political aftermath finally tilted things in favour of the people? For the moment, it seems to have, but the future is unpredictable, because what’s being opposed is an extremely profitable business.