An AIPF Team consisting of R. Vidyasagar, social scientist, Clifton, Advocate Bangalore, G. Ramesh, Advocate, Tirunelveli, Abdul Nizam, Advocate Thirunelveli, and Sundarraj, social activist, Thirunelveli. has visited and Kumareddypuram, Veerapandipuram, Pandarampatti, and settlements of Anna Nagar and Therespuram in Tutucorin town on 27th May 2018. The team also visited the Government General Hospital at Tutucorin and interacted with in patients who were subjected to severe injuries due to police bullets and lathi charge.

A summary of their report is below.

Why People Want Sterlite Shut Down

It is an undisputed fact that the running of the Sterlite copper smelting plant has caused severe pollution in the region leading to catastrophic environmental pollution of ground water and the air. Ground water, which is the sole source of water in the villages surrounding the plant has been severely polluted and villagers are now forced to either purchase water from private suppliers at Rs. 10/- per pot or rely on water supplied, albeit erratically, by the company. Most villages have refused the water supplied by the company and hence are spending daily for purchase of potable water. Agriculture has been completely destroyed by the emissions from the plant settling on them. Air quality is hazardously reduced to extremely poor quality. Health impacts on the people, as a result, has been devastating with high prevalence of cancer, forced hysterectomies, respiratory disorders, rashes, skin diseases, etc. Indeed cancer has taken the lives of a disproportionately large number of people.

Sterlite Copper is a business unit of Vedanta Ltd, which itself is a subsidiary of the London-based Vedanta Resources Plc, whose owner is Anil Agarwal. In April 2003, the Supreme Court of India slapped a fine of Rs. 100 crore on sterlite for pollution created by the unit. This is an acknowledgment of the fact that sterlite is polluting the area. The National Environmental Engineering Research institute reported during 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2005 showed that the sterlite copper factory has been polluting the environment through emissions that did not conform to the standards set by the TNPCB. A 2010 report by Environment Law World Alliance categorically stated that the copper smelting facilities have adverse environmental impacts that can extend to several tens of kilometers, endangering human health and contaminating water supplies.

From the time of its establishment the Company has flouted every possible environmental norm with impunity. A sustained campaign which also included legal battles against the plant ensued. In 2010 the Madras High Court ordered the closure of Sterlite factory citing violations of law and for polluting the environment. Incredibly within three days of the closure order, the Supreme Court stayed the closure order of the Madras High Court and permitted Sterlite to continue. Thereafter in April 2013, the Supreme Court set aside the judgment of the Madras High Court even while agreeing with all allegations made against the company, but refused to shut down the company.

People’s Movement

The massive protest of people on May 22, 2018, is to be seen in this context.

People have adopted every means available within the democratic and constitutional framework to raise their grievances, which is for the plant to be shut down. It is an acknowledged fact that the villagers have been protesting against the plant for almost two decades now. They have petitioned all the concerned authorities and State/Central Governments. They have approached the Courts for justice. They have adopted non-violent forms of struggle including sit-ins, protests, putting up black flags on top of their houses, etc. It is learnt that prior to this incident, there have held hundreds of such demonstrations in which thousands of people have participated but never has such untoward incidents taken place. Most recently on 28th March tens of thousands of men, women, children, senior citizens, youth from all walks of life including agrarian communities, fisherpeople, artisans, businesspersons, students, salt pan manufacturers, bus drivers, street vendors, etc. from around 20 villages adjacent the plant, and from Thoothukdi town, held a peaceful demonstration for more than 3 hours, which passed off peacefully.

The more recent phase of the campaign to get the Plant shut has seen a rise in agitations in village after village and in Thoothakudi town over the past year or two. In fact we are witness to the struggle camps erected in various villages where people have pitched small shamianas with huge banners demanding for immediate closure of the Plant. The people have gathered in these struggle sites everyday in peaceful protest for more than 100 days. The people have been going to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the District Collector every week to submit memorandums reiterating their demand. To date there has not been a single reply to these representations.

The Day Of The Firing

On 22nd May, armed with mats, bedsheets and some packed food, senior citizens, men, women, their youth and children began their journey from their villages to the Collector’s office. The first shock for the day was when the police, in large numbers, arbitrarily detained people on some villages including South Veerapandiapuram, Kumarareddipuram, Pandarapatti, etc. In few villages, the people were forcibly loaded into police vehicles and buses and dropped off at far places from the Collector’s office. South Veerapandiapuram people were lathicharged outside their villages itself and forced into these vehicles. Unshaken they still walked long distances and reached the Collector’s office and sat in peaceful demonstration. Police, by the hundreds, mobilised from other districts were brought by the district administration on this day. During the demonstration, few people went inside the District Collector’s office to submit a memorandum but were lathicharged out of the office by the police who then resorted to indiscriminate lathicharge, assault and firing on the people killing about 13 persons and injuring hundreds. The scared people ran to save their lives but were chased and beaten by the police. This took place in late morning to early afternoon. What happened after this well known to all through the media reports and social media reports: people were brutally targeted by the police armed with assault rifles, 13 were killed, hundreds injured.

The Team’s Findings:

This was a premeditated attack on the peaceful demonstration with the intention of shoot to kill. There was no prior warning or any attempt to disperse the crowd before this brutal killing. Clearly this was pre-planned with the sole intention to put fear into the hearts and minds of people and discourage any protest against the plant.

People alleged that goons of Sterlite and police in plain clothes infiltrated into the rally and instigated violence. There was burning of vehicles and building even before people reached the collectors office.

It is said by the people that, instead of stopping people or using pre shooting warnings like using water cannon or tear gas shells the people were allowed to go near the collectorate before starting the shooting. In order to justify their violence police has used tear gas in some places.

In order to create an impression that there is rioting around the place, the police deliberately organized shootings in Anna Nagar, Threspuram and so on. It is alleged that police were chasing those created trouble in the hospital. Actually the hospital and the shootings spots are way apart. It is told by the eye witnesses at Anna Nagar that a bystander Kaliappan who was shot by police died because of police crushed his neck with their boots.

It is alleged that the pre-identified leaders of the agitation were clearly marked for shooting and this was well planned by the police and goons of the Sterlite. (Their photos were already collected from the villages and other places by goons of Sterlite, when they were struggling in their villages and during their meetings).

It is clear from what people have said that while shooting police did not follow any protocols. Instead of shooting below the knees, most people died because of bullet injuries in their head, chest, and face. The police who fired were on top of the vehicle and from the ground without any uniform. They used sniper guns to shoot several rounds in one go which is totally illegal.

Brutal killings including a 17 year old school girl (who was shot in her mouth) is already known to the world through the videos circulated in public.

People of Theraspuram allege that Killing of Jhansi (around 47 years old ) of Therespuram was a cold-blooded murder as she was returning after giving fish to her daughter in the next street. She was shot in point blank range in her face and her brain was blown out. Jhansi’s daughter said she was not even allowed to identify the body and police were trying to hush up the killing of Jhansi. Only after long fight was she allowed to identify her mother’s body.

People reported that the death in police shooting is much more than 13 as it is alleged that many bodies are kept in the mortuary of the government hospital. As all the men are absconding from the villages and town areas, the actual death count is not known until all of them returns.

It is also alleged that some of the bodies were released to the families without postmortem and revealing the reasons for the death. One such happened in Pudhiyamuthur.

AIPF Demands:

  • Immediate and permanent closure of the Sterlite plant
  • TNPCB must revise its orders to incorporate all the substantial violations and illegalities committed by the Sterlite plant, so as to ensure that the orders are robust enough to withstand legal scrutiny and challenge
  • Implicate the goons of Sterlite who were alleged to be involved in the violence on May 22 in the murder cases.
  • There is still no official statement about who gave the orders to dire and the “Chain of command” responsible for the firing. The State Government has to disclose the same and all persons along the chain of command from the person who gave the order to the snipers who killed the people must be immediately dismissed from service
  • Unconditionally withdraw all the cases filed against the people
  • Pay compensation of Rs. 1 crore to each of the families of those killed in police firing and those who are permanently disabled because of shooting and police brutality. Further they must be paid monthly pension of Rs. 15,000/- each until they are able to get back to their livelihoods
  • Provide free legal aid to the affected people because of police firing and injuries to file complaints against the police and the district collector. Free medical care must be given to the victims.
  • Appoint a high-level independent committee to assess the sufferings of people in terms of loss of lives due to diseases like cancer, those who are living with cancer and other diseases, loss of livelihoods by losing their agriculture and fisheries wealth because of pollution due to the Sterlite plant, and file a case against Sterlite to compensate all losses of people over the period of the last two decades.
  • With draw the deployment of police from Thoothukudi
  • Modi and Palanisamy governments should resign
  • A team of sitting judges should enquire into the firing.