The anti-Sterlite protests: How copper came a cropper

For more than two decades the inhabitants of a district in India’s Tamil Nadu state had endured the pollution caused by a copper smelting complex known as Sterlite Copper. In May this year, their anger boiled over as the human casualties of the pollution mounted along with the destruction of the livelihood of local fishermen as the breeding ground of the fish they harvested had become irreparably polluted.

ON 22 May, the anger of locals over the pollution that industries in Thoothukudi in India’s Tamil Nadu state were spewing reached a flashpoint. In the six days following the protest and police firing, the town remained on the boil. The district authorities are still trying to build confidence among the people. Twice shot, literally, the locals, who are mourning the death of 13 of their own, have begun to see the administration as adversaries.

The problem, though, goes back to the arrival of the Sipcot Industrial Estate over an area of 1,083 acres in 1994. It marked the beginning of a saga of struggle by the locals as the air over Thoothukudi was no more clean. Pollution levels started to go up and fishing, the mainstay of the town, was threatened.

A research paper published in the July 2017 issue of the journal of the Geological Society of India said numerous large- and small-scale industries in Thoothukudi had affected water quality by dumping effluents. It pointed out that the concentration of certain elements in groundwater exceeded the standard values prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It even named the polluting units, including Sterlite, Heavy Water Plant and Nila Sea Foods.

The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute reports of 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2005 on Sterlite Copper, the factory in the eye of the current storm, showed that the plant was polluting the environment through emissions that did not conform to the standards laid down by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) under the Air Act and Water Act. The Supreme Court, in its April 2013 order, slapped a fine of a billion rupees on Sterlite, applying the polluter-pays principle. On a couple of occasions, allegations of gas leak from Sterlite could not be confirmed as there were other industrial units in the vicinity that had the potential to cause pollution.

Fear and anger

In the last few months, the slogan ‘Copper for Sterlite, cancer for people’ has been heard in villages around the Sipcot complex in Thoothukudi. On the face of it, there seems to be no immediate provocation for the revival of the anti-Sterlite agitation, which began in 1994, in A. Kumareddiyapuram. There was however, activists allege, much pent-up anger and frustration of the people over their inability to stop the opening of new units or expansion of existing ones (Sterlite Copper, in this instance) that, in their perception, would pollute the environment further. The agitation slowly attracted people from South Veerapandiapuram, Pandarampatti, Silverpuram, Madathur, Meelavittan, Ayyanadaippu, Sankaraperi and Mappillaiyoorani.

J Veerapandi, a postgraduate in chemistry and a local, claims: ‘These villages situated close to Sterlite Copper have been witnessing deaths caused by cancer and respiratory diseases, birth of children with congenital disorders and increased instances of miscarriage. The villagers suspect that these are caused by liquid and gaseous effluents discharged from the copper-manufacturing unit. And this anxiety, fear and anger brought the people together against the mega project.’

The earliest of the notable protests happened on 20 March 1996, when about 500 fishermen laid siege to cargo ship MV Reesa that was carrying raw materials for Sterlite. The ship had to be rerouted to Kochi from where copper ore was transported to Thoothukudi by road. The fishermen had their own fears. Having witnessed the effects of fly ash, the effluent discharged by the Tuticorin Thermal Power Station (TTPS) into the sea initially, they too opposed Sterlite Copper. ‘Our country boat fishermen used to harvest the delicious kooni iraal [baby prawn] in areas where the fly ash was dumped by TTPS initially. As the dumping of the hot and polluting waste continued over a decade, the breeding ground of kooni iraal at this point vanished. Apart from this, a few more tasty small-fish varieties too disappeared from this area,’ recalls S Manoharan, a mechanised boat driver from Tharuvaikulam, a coastal hamlet near Thoothukudi.

Though the fishermen of Thoothukudi and nearby coastal hamlets had directly experienced the ill-effects of TTPS, the first coal-based power plant to come up in the region, they did not intensify their protest. But they had to pay a hefty price for it as they lost the revenue they could get by harvesting kooni iraal and other varieties of fish. Though fly ash is now used for a range of purposes to give additional income to the project proponents, the damage already caused to the environment is immeasurable, they add.

When a fertiliser unit near Thoothukudi recently released inadequately treated water with huge content of ammonia into the sea, it killed several tonnes of fish that were washed ashore. Though the TNPCB, with the help of the Fisheries College and Research Institute, Thoothukudi, could prove that the ammonia present in the effluent at the hazardous level had killed thousands of fish, the fertiliser unit was let off with a warning.

‘Industrial heavyweights, for augmenting their revenue, are wiping out our livelihood with their improperly treated effluents. All this cannot be tolerated anymore. That is why the anti-Sterlite protest has united everyone here; they see it as a voice against pollution in their area,’ says S James, a fish trader from Poobalarayarpuram.

Salt manufacturers also have a tough time with the effluents. ‘The suspended particulate matter coming down from the thick black smoke billowing from the nearby private coal-based thermal power plant seriously affects the quality of salt produced in my pan. As the black particles settle down on salt, its quality is compromised and, consequently, I get a lower price for my product,’ says A Antony Dhanaraj, a salt producer near Tharuvaikulam.

‘Now, the circle is complete with industrial pollution becoming a common thread to link people from various sections of an otherwise divided society. When the dots are connected, it became a full-fledged protest against “one” of the polluters,’ observes A Joseph Prem Anand of Manickapuram, who now lives in North Carolina. He coordinates the anti-Sterlite protests in the US.

Welcome worn out

Prem says that for more than two decades, Sterlite Copper has been a major polluter – a description acknowledged by the Supreme Court. Over the years, the toxic waste from the industry has polluted the air, water and land of Thoothukudi and its surroundings. A document authored in 2010 by Mark Chernaik of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide categorically states that ‘copper smelting facilities have adverse environmental impacts that can extend for several tens of kilometres’.

The document demonstrates how the smelting complex in Thoothukudi ‘is endangering human health and the environment and contaminating water supplies’. It also found toxic quantities of arsenic, cadmium, nickel and sulphates in soil samples from villages adjoining Sterlite Copper. These poisonous substances were found to have caused the death of livestock and adverse effects on the health of local villagers, even at that time, he argues.

When the copper smelter came into existence in 1996, local people thought the industrial development would provide job opportunities for local youth. But the cost of development has been disproportionate to any benefit it had for the local community, they say.

K Kanagaraj of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) says the initial euphoria of having a factory nearby wore off pretty quickly. On 5 July 1997, about 100 women workers of a nearby artificial flower plant fainted and were hospitalised. The cause could not be attributed to Sterlite since there were other units in the area with polluting potential.

On 20 August 1997, some employees of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board who were working in a nearby sub-station were affected by continuous emission of concentrated sulphur dioxide. A blast that occurred at the unit on 30 August 1997 killed two contract workers and caused damage to an adjacent building and equipment, he recounts.

The incidence of cancer increased in Thoothukudi in 2009, 2010 and 2011, he claims, going on to charge hospitals with not maintaining proper reports. The gas leak from the plant on 23 March 2013 sparked public outrage and fears that Thoothukudi would turn into the Bhopal of the south.

Fuelling protests

More than the proliferation of chemical units in the Sipcot industrial complex, what worries residents is the manner in which they get environmental clearance or resume operations after mandatory suspension. Sterlite Copper had to be shut down at least five times in the past on charges of violations or gas leak. But what added new vigour to the current agitation is the Centre’s approval for expansion of the copper smelter.

Fatima Babu of Thoothukudi, an environmental activist, contends in a public interest litigation petition filed before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court that Sterlite Copper obtained the sanction for expansion ‘by availing exemption from public consultation by misrepresenting location as being within a “notified industrial estate/complex”’. She claims that the location of the second copper smelter is within the Sipcot Thoothukudi Industrial Park, which is still at the planning stage and awaiting necessary environmental clearances.

Documents obtained by her under the Right to Information Act reveal that the survey numbers of land needed for copper smelter expansion fell within the land earmarked for the proposed industrial park, she claims.

The expansion plan also fuelled the current bout of protests. There are many people who question the rationale behind allowing an industrial estate of chemical units at a distance of 14 kilometres from the ecologically sensitive Gulf of Mannar Bioreserve, against the mandatory 25 kilometres. The complex is also in close proximity to habitations of the coastal town.

In this context, they point out that the industrial complexes in Manali/Ennore, Ranipet, Cuddalore, Mettur and Thoothukudi have become ‘environmental hotspots’.            

First published in The Hindu (India) on 27 May 2018. Reprinted with permission. This article was written by a special correspondent for The Hindu, with inputs from S Annamalai, P Sudhakar and J Praveen Paul Joseph.

*Third World Resurgence No. 329/330, January/February 2018, pp 6-7