The controversial Sterlite Copper at Thoothukudi or Tuticorin has a history of public protests by locals for decades. Locals fear that the gigantic four lakh metric tonne capacity smelter releases harmful pollutants that are afflicting them with breathing problems and even cancer. The smelter, owned by the Anil Agarwal-promoted Vedanta Group, was temporarily shut down earlier in 2013 amidst similar accusations. But these were not upheld by the court. However, Tamil Nadu CM EK Palaniswami cannot dismiss the concerns without proper examination of the issue. If he had reacted to the volatile situation earlier, lives of more than a dozen innocent citizens would not have been lost.
Available photographs show instead of taking crowd dispersal measures, the state police shot at agitators like snipers, which the people have construed as target killings. Apparently, the four activists shot at on that fateful day were leading lights of the ongoing anti-Sterlite protests. Their killings should be probed given that they were leading an agitation that had hindered the company’s plans to double its production capacity. The existence of a corporate-politician-police nexus is not something unknown to the people. Therefore, the murders of innocent protesters must be investigated by an independent federal body like the CBI.
The CM’s response that the state is taking steps to close down the Sterlite plant through “legal” means is inadequate and too late. Industrialisation is important for a country like India, which is fighting the scourge of unemployment. Indeed, a copper smelter is highly polluting, but it can be made environment-friendly by investing in clean technology. The unit is providing jobs to several thousands of people. It is the duty of the state to ensure stricter compliance with environmental laws to ensure there is no discharge of pollutants in the vicinity of the factory. Agarwal, who insists on reopening and expanding the facility, must learn to live in harmony with the ecosystem. Several of his companies have witnessed bitter conflicts with locals over exploitation of natural resources, including a bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri in Odisha. The suppression of people’s concerns by the state machinery always vitiates the investment climate, and this needs to be avoided.
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