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The Proposed expansion of the Sterlite copper smelting plant in Tamil Nadu has renewed protests among the people of Tuticorin district. Protests are continuing for over 45 days, till date in the district demanding an immediate closure of the copper plant. On March 24, 2018, thousands of people marched against the decision to expand the plant which has been causing damage to life and environment.

Sterlite copper smelting plant has faced stiff opposition ever since its inception in 1996. Sterlite, a subsidiary of UK Based Vedanta Group, first chose Maharashtra for establishing the Copper Smelting Plant in 1989. But after a huge protest in 1994 the Maharashtra government canceled the agreement and the ordered all work to be stopped. As in the case of Koodankulam, the then Tamil Nadu government lead by J.Jayalalitha welcomed the plant and granted 428 Acres of land for the plant. Development, Job creation were once again arguments put forward in favor of establishing the plant.


Copper for you and cancer for Us? was the prime slogan used in the protest

The TNPCB gave clearance to the construction of the plant without even a public hearing and without getting clearance from Environmental Impact assessment. Contrary to this restriction that the plant should be constructed 25kms away from the ecologically sensitive biosphere reserve of Gulf of Mannar, plant has been constructed 14 Kms away. The Anti-Sterlite movement Spear-headed the struggle by organizing hunger strikes, rallies, human chains and bandh to show their opposition to the plant.

On 20.3.1996 more than 500 fisherman laid siege on the Cargo Ship, M.V.Reesa which carried raw materials for the Sterlite plant as a result of which the Ship was redirected to the Kochi Port. Casteism was used to engineer a split in the mass movement. As a result Sterlite speeded up its infrastructure and transported the raw materials from Kochi via Trucks and started its production. The TNPCB granted permission for a production of 40,000 tons of copper. But the plant has been producing 1,700,000 tons of copper.

The Plant has been emitting Sulphur dioxide more than the permissible limits. The 2008, the Department of Community Medicine, Tirunelveli Medical College report titled “Health Status and Epidemiological Study Around 5 km Radius of Sterlite Industries (India) Limited, Thoothukudi.” exposed the various health hazards caused by this plant. The people in the nearby locality have suffered eye irritation and the new born children are affected with “Primary Complex” (TB in Children). The temperature has increased in the surrounding areas and the frequency of acid rain has also increased. Phosphogypsum a by-product of the smelting process has been piling up, which emits radiations increasing cancer to the people in the locality. Due to lack of proper processing and storage of liquid waste the groundwater has been affected. Iron content in the surrounding areas are 17 to 20 times higher than the normal level.

There have been numerous accidents in the plant which has accounted for at least 13 registered deaths and 139 serious injuries of its workers between the period of 1996 and 2004 alone.

After 14 years of struggle the Madras high court ordered the closure of the plant in 2010. Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) ordered immediate shutdown of the plant after a gas leak on March 30, 2013 which caused suffocation, eye irritation and sore throat to the people residing in the plant’s vicinity. On April 2nd 2013, the Supreme Court (SC) of India passed its judgment in favor of the Sterlite Industries to continue the operation. As a compensation for the damage to the Environment which the company has done SC directed the company to Pay Rs. 100 Crores over a period of 3 months.

The toothless Tamil Nadu government which has been parroting the stance of central government in almost all the issues has been mute on the people’s demands. Both Congress and BJP are in the payroll of Vedanta Group. According to the report by Association for Democratic Reforms: “Vedanta group is the top donor to both the national parties with its subsidiary, Sterlite Industries donating Rs 600 lakhs followed by Sesa Goa Ltd donating Rs 2,78.50 lakhs to Indian National Congress while the Public and Political Awareness Trust of Vedanta donated Rs 1450.00 lakhs to BJP followed by Vedanta The Madras Aluminium Co. Ltd donating Rs 350.00 lakhs between FY 2003-04 and 2011-12”.

This is the reality of the democracy that the people of India have to put up with. “Profit before People” is the defacto motto of the Indian state. Projects like sterlite, koodankulam which are openly against the interests of the people needs a wider opposition and solidarity transcending regional border.

Arun Kali Raja belongs to the May 17 movement

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