Anti-Sterlite Protests: Who Is Behind The Tuticorin Turmoil?

M R Subramani and Aravindan Neelakandan

Apr 05, 2018, 01:37 PM | Updated 01:37 PM IST

A banner about a protest meeting against Sterlite Copper plant in Tuticorin on March 24, 2018. (Photo courtesy: Foil Vedanta)
A banner about a protest meeting against Sterlite Copper plant in Tuticorin on March 24, 2018. (Photo courtesy: Foil Vedanta)
  • While Sterlite is seen to be lax in adhering to few environmental guidelines, protests against Sterlite follows same pattern of Jallikattu agitation - a genuine protest hijacked by sinister forces in a bid to push their separatist agenda.
  • Up and running for over a month and a half now, the protests in Tamil Nadu’s coastal town of Thoothukudi (known earlier as Tuticorin) demanding closure of Sterlite Copper, a unit of London-based Vedanta Resources, are showing signs of a pattern similar to the jallikattu protests on Chennai’s Marina Beach in January 2016.

    All hell broke loose for Sterlite when it embarked on its expansion programme on 10 February this year. First to protest were villagers from Kumarattiyapuram village near the copper plant by staging a fast. Police arrested over 250 of those, including some activists, who have been opposed to the plant’s functioning ever since it was commissioned.

    Since then, the protests have only grown louder with Tamil actor and founder of the fledgling Makkal Needhi Maiam joining the protests in Tuticorin on 1 April. The scene will likely shift to Chennai on 8 April, when the movie actors association plans a protest at Valluvar Kottam.

    A closer scrutiny of the events that have unfolded leaves no doubt that the forces that were behind the escalation of the protests demanding scrapping of the ban on jallikattu in Tamil Nadu are back. The main objective of these forces is to peddle their separatist agenda.

    One of the persons who was behind the jallikattu protests in 2016 and has since decided to take a backseat told Swarajya that he was invited to take part in the Sterlite protests but he declined the invitation. Naam Tamizhar was one of the parties that protested vehemently over the jallikattu issue. And the image below shows how it is trying to play with emotions using a banner that has the late Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s photo.

    A banner during the protest against Sterlite plant’s operation in Tuticorin with the late LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s image. (Naam Tamizhar Twitter account.)
    A banner during the protest against Sterlite plant’s operation in Tuticorin with the late LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s image. (Naam Tamizhar Twitter account.)

    On 1 April , May 17 organisation leader Thirumurugan Gandhi visited Kumarattiyapuram village and spoke to the media accusing officials of taking bribes and allowing Sterlite to function. Again, he was one of those who hijacked the jallikattu protests to further the interests of his organisation. (Intelligence sources say that he along with Naam Tamizhar cadre planned to hoist a Tamil nation flag on Republic Day in 2016 at Fort St George as part of their separatist agenda.)

    May 17 is the date of LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s death and the organisation espouses the cause of a separate Tamil nation. His visit is a clear indication of the forces behind these protests. During the jallikattu protests, some least known organisations took part and a similar pattern is emerging here with some organisation like Pudhiya Podhu Udamai Iyakkam, participating. What is the locus standi of these organisations, most of which seem to be advocating an anti-Centre stand or separatism?

    These forces are out to scale it up further as is evident from protests in the US last weekend, in London (before Vedanta owner Anil Agarwal’s residence) on 28 March and this Twitter post.

    Fingers are being pointed at two key players behind these protests. First is Fatima Babu, a local environment activist, and second is Mohan C Lazarus, who runs a television channel.

    Lazarus, a fundamentalist Christian evangelist with political clout, also joined the Luddite protests, signalling a combination of Dravidianist-Tamil separatist and Christian evangelical forces using green fascism to further the ‘Breaking India’ agenda.

    The protests gathered momentum on 24 March, when a section of traders downed shutters in Tuticorin following a call for total closure. The traders were forced to down shutters on orders from churches in Tuticorin. Priests in the churches were approached by Lazarus after which they asked traders of their community to cooperate with the shutdown plan.

    Fatima Babu interacted with Foil Vedanta founder Samendra Das, a non-resident Indian based in London, for the 24 March shutdown. Media reports quoting police said Das was one of the reasons why the protests grew louder. Das had visited Tuticorin twice and had provoked the Kumarattiyapuram villagers to continue the protests. (Foil Vedanta is a London-based network targeting Vedanta allegedly for its ‘human rights abuses and illegal operations’.)

    There are two more objectives behind escalating the protests, an observer told Swarajya. One is some of the leaders, who are vociferous are out to make monetary gains. The reality is that Vedanta Resources, the parent of Sterlite Copper, has donated to all political parties. Though the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has supported the protests, it may not do it wholeheartedly as the relative of one of its top leaders is a supplier for Sterlite.

    Second, it is seen as effort that is being continued to discredit the Narendra Modi government since acceptance for the Hindu Tamil concept is growing and Dravidian parties feel threatened by it. The recent success of a rath yatra by a Thiruvananthapuram-based mutt despite opposition from the DMK and other parties, and questioning of Dravida Kazhagam founder E V Ramasamy’s principles, are concerns for the Dravidian parties that they are trying to divert attention by discrediting the central government.

    Organisers behind jallikattu agree that efforts are on to discredit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Modi government. The BJP has done nothing wrong either in the case of jallikattu or Sterlite but is having to bear the cross for some smart play by the opposition. In the jallikattu case, it was late chief minister J Jayalalithaa who had erred, but once the protests grew louder, the BJP was blamed for the fiasco. Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, then the chief minister, came up with a master stroke by writing a letter to the Centre on amending the law to allow jallikattu, thus shifting the blame on the Modi government. The innocent public, who seem to be protesting for what they think is a just cause as in the jallikattu protest, are being taken for a ride by these elements to serve their own interests.

    In Sterlite case, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government under late Jayalalithaa gave the permission for the plant to come up in Tuticorin. The DMK government under M Karunanidhi gave the environmental clearance for the plant to start operations. In 2007, Sterlite got its expansion plan approved by the Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. In 2009, it got environment clearance for the expansion from the UPA government. The DMK was part of both these governments.

    The expansion plan is to increase the plant’s copper smelting capacity to 4.2 lakh tonnes a year.

    Interestingly, P Chidambaram, who was the finance and home minister in the 2004-2014 UPA governments, was a non-executive director of Vedanta. He quit the board when he joined Singh’s government in May 2004.

    The only fault, if one could say so, on the BJP’s part was to give Sterlite time until December this year to complete the expansion plans. The extension of time was given in 2016, according to a Right to Information activist. It is a case of the party being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    On its part, Sterlite has not covered itself with much glory. In 2017, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) had found the plant violating six parameters of Air (Prevention and Control of) Pollution Act, 1981 and 11 parameters of the Water (Prevention and Control of) Pollution Act, 1974 (amended in 1988). A show cause notice was issued to Sterlite in April last year and a petition filed in the National Green Tribunal to stay the plant’s operations in June 2017.

    The case was dismissed by the National Green Tribunal with the judge taking up the original case instead of the petition seeking the stay while handing down his judgement. A petition has now been filed in the Supreme Court against the ruling.

    The general allegation against Sterlite is that the plant is causing pollution leading to difficulties in breathing and various types of cancer and skin diseases. The company has also failed to develop a green belt as stipulated in the environmental clearance, activists allege. They also complain that during 2015 floods, copper sludge entered the town, leading to suspicion whether or not the firm was sticking to the pollution norms.

    Tuticorin collector N Venkatesh told media on Monday (2 April) that all complaints against Sterlite have been sent to the government and the state government is closely monitoring the issue.

    On its part, Sterlite says it has been complying with all the regulations and norms. A company official said the plant has been taken by surprise by the protests now when it had been cleared of all charges. “Our chimney is connected online. It can tell anyone if we are violating the norms or polluting the atmosphere with our emissions,” a spokesperson for the company said.

    Those who support Sterlite, and are concerned over investments in Tamil Nadu, say that the plant’s emissions are monitored continuously and the TNPCB manually took samples thrice a year. Various facilities of the plant, including its wells, are being monitored closely for any violation and nothing alarming has been found until now. The company has all legal clearances and the only way to stay the expansion or its operation is to move the courts.

    Vishal Manikandan, the son of an employee of Sterlite, posted on Facebook saying the company has taken adequate precaution to deal with problems like generation of sulphuric acid. Wastes like arsenic are disposed of by methods mandated by the government. He also said that the plant discharged no water and Sterlite has adopted all prescribed guidelines.

    Supporters of the Sterlite plant charge that activists haven’t backed their allegations with any data. If at all any data has been produced, it relates to a period before 2013, when the Supreme Court pulled up Sterlite for causing pollution and fined it Rs 100 crore.

    Even as supporters and activists slug it out, the Sterlite plant has been closed for two weeks for once in four-year maintenance!

    M R Subramani is the executive editor at Swarajya.Aravindan Neelakandan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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