Nine people had died in anti-sterlite protests inTuticorin by the time Chief Minister Palaniswami announced an inquiry into Tuesday’s police action
Some distance from where the anti-Sterlite protesters were, a Tamil Nadu policeman in plainclothes had parked himself atop a police bus. He was armed with what appeared to be an assault rifle and had been seen in photographs, taking aim. On the road below, are a large number of policemen. Some of them wearing bullet-proof vests, some without protection in their khaki and some riot-control policemen. Then, someone decides to send another policeman to the roof of the bus. According to a video released by news agency ANI, he crawls the length of the bus in a few seconds like an expert commando, takes his position and the assault rifle.
And then, a voice is heard in the background making a shocking statement: “At least one should die”.
A few seconds later, the policeman fires his first shot.
It is not clear if he hit anyone. If he didn’t, someone else did.
#WATCH Local police in Tuticorin seen with assault rifles to disperse protesters demanding a ban on Sterlite Industries. 9 protestors have lost their lives. #TamilNadu. (Earlier visuals) pic.twitter.com/hinYmbtIZQ
— ANI (@ANI) May 22, 2018
Nine people had died in Tuticorin by the time Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami announced an inquiry into Tuesday’s police action, which Congress president Rahul Gandhi described as a “murder” and “state-sponsored terrorism”. By the time Governor Banwarilal Purohit issued his condolence message later in the evening, his message said 11 people had died.
Local media reports said a 17-year-old girl was among the dead.
Tuesday’s protests in the port city of Tuticorin, now called Thoothukudi, were to mark 100 days of their protests against the Sterlite plant, one of India’s biggest copper plants, because they felt it was polluting their environment, The residents had been accusing the plant of polluting ground water for years. But the protests to demand closure of the plant intensified this year after reports that the group wanted to double capacity as the initial 25 year licence was coming to an end.
The plant, which can produce 400,000 tonnes of copper a year, has been shut for more than 50 days pending permission from the state pollution regulator due to alleged non-compliance with pollution rules.
But environmental activists point out that the plant, controlled by London-headquartered Vedanta Resources, had been temporarily shut in the past too for violations.
In March 2013, hundreds of people suffered breathing difficulty, nausea and throat infection following an alleged gas leak from the plant. The plant was ordered to shut down following allegations of violating pollution control norms but reopened after authorities “failed” to establish that the gas had leaked from Sterlite. Later in 2013, the Supreme Court ordered the company to pay a 100 crores fine.
The 100-day long protest has been supported by several celebrities including Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. Mr Haasan, who was in Tuticorin when the protest completed 50 days, had then asked the government to shut down the plant. “Sterlite copper plant should not become another Bhopal,” he said, a reference to the gas leak in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal back in the eighties that killed thousands.
On Tuesday, local media reports said the protesters wanted to march to the district collector’s office but were refused permission. Instead, officials banned gathering of crowds but the protesters continued.
There is no clarity on why the protest turned violent this time. But according to the police, the protesters toppled vehicles, set dozens of vehicles on fire, hurled stones at the police and vandalised the district collector’s office.
Opposition leaders including MK Stalin of the DMK have blamed the ruling AIADMK government for ignoring the protests for 100 days because it was peaceful.
“The inaction of the government has led to the people’s protests and police resorting to firing to control it,” MK Stalin said, demanding that the plant be shut down immediately for good.
Kamal Haasan also blamed the government for ignoring peaceful protests. Citizens are not criminals… They are the ones who lose their lives,” he said.
In a late evening statement, Sterlite Copper said: “It’s with great sorrow and regret that we witnessed today’s incidents around the protest today at Tuticorin”.
P Ramnath, chief executive of Vedanta Ltd’s copper business told Reuters that his company “would like to restart the plant as soon as possible, in a peaceful manner”.