Read in : தமிழ்

Share the Article

Sterlite has a history of managing to reopen after executive and judicial closure orders. The police firing on May 22, 2018 which killed 13 people, seemed like curtains for the plant. But the management has certainly not given up. The company’s appeal against the government order closing it was dismissed by the Madras High Court but it has gone to the Supreme Court on appeal against the high court order. The apex court ruling is awaited. While the buzz is that the company will manage to open the plant, will the people allow that?

In a sign of its intention to reopen the plant, Sterlite Copper ramped up its CSR activities to build bridges with the community. It offered to contribute medical oxygen using the oxygen production processes in its smelter although it never got anywhere close to delivering the humongous quantities it had promised. The company also refurbished the general hospital in the city.

More recently, the company built a water tank at Nainar Kovil village and has been assisting sections of the fishermen community such as divers and pearl fishers in Theresepuram, Thoothukudi. Theresepuram fishermen were among the most vociferous protesters against Sterlite. On May 22, the protest march had started from Theresepuram and gathered steam as it proceeded to the collectorate.

Almost everyone said Sterlite should not reopen, not after the deaths of 13 people in the police firing. One woman, though, standing in a group, had a contrarian view. Her husband had passed away some 10 years ago and she owed her later life to Sterlite. They paid for her children’s education, helped her with healthcare and a whole lot of other things.

Sterlite COO Sumathi Angusamy recently told Dinamalar that the company has done a lot of work as part of its corporate social responsibility for the villages around Sterlite where protests broke out against capacity expansion work in 2018. She was emphatic that the plant would restart soon.

When I visited Thoothukudi in June 2021 to write about oxygen production by Sterlite, I met an autorickshaw driver who talked about how Sterlite had paid the fees for his daughter’s education at a nursing college. He said he was thankful to Sterlite yet said the plant should not open. He was sitting with four other auto drivers who all said that business was down after Sterlite closure. Nevertheless, they felt that the plant should not open. They were among the 25 people on the streets of the district I interviewed in a random survey.

Almost everyone said Sterlite should not reopen, not after the deaths of 13 people in the police firing. One woman, though, standing in a group, had a contrarian view. Her husband had passed away some 10 years ago and she owed her later life to Sterlite. They paid for her children’s education, helped her with healthcare and a whole lot of other things.

So, out of 25 people, only one supported the reopening of the plant. Some stakeholders directly and openly support the restarting of the plant. But, by and large, most people in Thoothukudi didn’t.

Murugan is among the leaders of the protest at Kumarettiyapuram, which was the hub of the 2018 protests. He was a lorry driver engaged by Sterlite. He lost his job but has found a gig elsewhere. He said in June of last year that Sterlite should not start again although a section of the people in his village supported the plant.

Protesters, including a large number of women, chant slogans against Sterlite.

The air is better now. And the cattle drink the groundwater in the village that they wouldn’t drink when Sterlite was operating and polluting it, Murugan said.

Having the smelter may serve national and local economic interest but public opinion around Sterlite and in the town was not favorable to it until recently. The situation has likely not changed drastically in seven months.

People like Murugan are not hard to find across Thoothukudi. Like the auto driver who also had a positive experience with Sterlite, there are many who benefited from Sterlite but see it as a moral issue because of the killing of the protesters.

As a journalist trained to question everything, I feel it is possible that the overwhelming negativity towards Sterlite in my informal survey has more complex factors behind it. It could be that some would be willing to accept the reopening of the plant for its economic benefits and other reasons but will not openly admit it. The reason behind this could be what is termed as social desirability by experts. For instance, many Americans wanted Donald Trump to be President of their country but few openly said this to pollsters. They didn’t want to be publicly seen as supporting Trump. The BJP too suffered from the social desirability factor in opinion polls although one can say that it crossed the threshold for social desirability with Narendra Modi. Similarly, people in Thoothukudi, barring a few, may not want to be seen as publicly supporting Sterlite.

It could be that some would be willing to accept the reopening of the plant for its economic benefits and other reasons but will not openly admit it. The reason behind this could be what is termed as social desirability by experts. For instance, many Americans wanted Donald Trump to be President of their country but few openly said this to pollsters. They didn’t want to be publicly seen as supporting Trump.

Some might even have forgiven Sterlite for the pollution, as Thoothukudi is dotted with several polluting units that have harmed the environment in the past. The district has more than half a dozen coal plants including captive ones such as Sterlite’s 200 MW plant. Indian coal emission laws are behind the curve and coal plants emit large amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere that cause acid rain. But the killing of protesters turned the people against Sterlite.

An informed source said that the Health, Safety & Environment section of the plant should have acted like a regulator to ensure that environmental laws were adhered to. But at that time production was the overriding goal and HSE guidelines and requests were often ignored, at least initially. A Sterlite spokesperson who didn’t wish to be named said that after the 2013 closure and Supreme Court levying a fine of Rs 100 crore, the plant had indeed improved on the environment score.

While the 2018 protests were largely led by villagers around Sterlite opposing capacity expansion of the plant, it soon spiraled into a major agitation. There was genuine popular participation in the protests from people of all classes and ideologies. Traders, fishermen, environmentalists, regular city folk as well as villagers, and ultra-Left activists as well as RSS members joined the protests.

The Jallikattu protests that took place the previous year in Chennai became the inspiration for the Thoothukudi protests in 2018. Murugan of Kumarettiyapuram said they got the idea of staying put until demands were met from the Jallikattu protests.

It was a time when common people were out protesting across the state for the environment. On the day the police firing happened, common people, including women with children, were among those marching in Thoothukudi along with protesters and activists. (To be concluded)


Share the Article

Read in : தமிழ்