The Sterlite issue could have proved handy in Thoothukudi. But no party wants to take the risk of raking up the controversy, fearing a backlash.
When the results of the Lok Sabha elections roll out on 23 May, it will also mark the completion of nearly one year after the closure of UK-based Vedanta Resources’ Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi.
The copper plant was closed on 28 May after protests demanding its closure turned violent with 13 people dying in the 22 May police firing. A petition filed by Vedanta against the closure is being heard by the Madras High Court currently.
The Tamil Nadu government justifies the closure on the grounds that Sterlite had violated pollution norms but the National Green Tribunal, which went through the state government’s charges, found nothing wrong with the copper unit.
In these circumstances, one would think that perhaps the closure of the Sterlite plant could be an issue during polling that will be held on 18 April.
The poll contest in the Thoothukudi Lok Sabha constituency is witnessing a multi-cornered contest though the major contestants are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), Makkal Neethi Maiam (MNM) and Bahujan Samaj Party.
However, the contest as of now looks to be a two-horse race with DMK’s Kanimozhi, daughter of late M Karunanidhi, who helped found the party and was four-time chief minister, and the BJP's Tamilisai Soundararajan.
The DMK supported the protest demanding closure of the Sterlite plant. It doesn’t want the plant to be reopened.
The BJP had accused vested interests of sparking the protests demanding closure and has said that it wouldn’t say anything on its opening or closure as the subject is sub-judice.
However, it is the government of its alliance partner All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) which ordered closure of the plant. The AIADMK is keen to ensure that it remains shut.
For the Thoothukudi people, the Sterlite plant is one of the primary things that keeps the wheel of its economy moving. It is the largest industrial plant offering employment, permanent and contract, to around 4,000 people.
There are thousands of others who depend on Sterlite for their livelihood with at least 3,000 of them in the transport sector alone. This by Swarajya highlighted how the plant’s closure has affected the local economy in Thoothukudi.
“The closure has caused innumerable hardships to the people here. At least 2 lakh tonnes of copper used to arrive at the VOC Port here every month. That gave jobs to us, transporters. We engaged at least 1,500 lorries. All that have come to a halt,” says V Murugan, secretary, Thoothukudi Lorry Owners Association.
A couple of industries like Ind Bharat Thermal Power Limited had already run into problems when Sterlite was ordered shut. “That compounded our woes. We all have taken loans to become owners after being drivers and cleaners. We are now unable to pay our dues due to the strike,” he says.
“House rents have dropped by at least 10 per cent. Some of the workers have withdrawn their children from private schools. The problems are there for all to see,” says K Ganesan, vessel agent, VOC Port.
Murugan says the closure has led to job losses and if the situation continues for another couple of months, Thoothukudi could see its people migrate to other states.
“The entire Thoothukudi district besides districts bordering it have also been affected. There are many from places like Tiruchendur and Nagercoil who were employed here,” he says.
Will the state of Thoothukudi’s economy impact voting preferences? There are two angles to the Sterlite controversy. One is the closure of the plant and the other is the death of 13 people in the shooting.
“We transporters have around 60,000 votes. We will definitely vote for the party that stands for development. Agreed, the 13 people should not have died but it is the state government that is responsible. Right from the beginning, the BJP-led Centre has been favouring development,” says Murugan.
“I have my votes in Ottapidaram segment of the constituency. We have a bypoll for the assembly there. I will definitely vote against the state government,” he adds.
“Sterlite closure has caused problems to Thoothukudi’s economy. But people here are unlikely to consider that when they cast their votes. Most of them are influenced by the church which is asking them to vote against the BJP,” says an industrialist, not wanting to be identified.
“The Sterlite closure may not be even an issue outside Thoothukudi. That will give us an advantage since we expect a significant number of people here to vote against Tamilisai,” says a local BJP leader.
A Thoothukudi lawyer says Sterlite itself might want people to vote for Kanimozhi, hoping that the DMK will come to power in the next assembly elections.
“Sterlite officials could think that the DMK could be impressed upon to make the government pleader tone down the state’s stand unlike the strong stance of the AIADMK government,” the lawyer says.
“Political parties are avoiding any mention of the Sterlite issue or closure. They know their stance in supporting the protests or closure could come under scrutiny,” says V Kannan, a contract worker in Thoothukudi.
“The BJP is getting a better response than other parties. Had it been AIADMK, you can be certain that Kanimozhi would have won without even working up a sweat,” says a BJP worker.
A state BJP leader said that Tamilisai was a reluctant candidate here. “She was more keen on Tirunelveli. But Tamil Nadu Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam said that it was earmarked for Manoj Pandian, former AIADMK Rajya Sabha member and son of former speaker P H Pandian,” he said.
Manoj’s mother the late Cynthia Pandian had contested from Thoothukudi in 2009 and lost to DMK’s S R Jeyadurai. In 2014, AIADMK’s Jayasingh Thiagarajan Natterjee won the seat defeating Jeyadurai by over 1.2 lakh votes. The BJP didn’t field any candidate in 2014 here despite choosing to go alone then.
“Everyone knows who triggered the protests demanding closure. In fact, it was nothing but religious activism,” says a Thoothukudi resident.
“People knew that the protesters and their supporters were trying to convert this into a movement similar to the one witnessed in Chennai to remove the ban on jallikattu. No one questions why the curfew was broken, why bikes and government buildings were set on fire,” says the local.
“Thirteen people died due to police firing and it is regrettable. But that seems to be the issue than the closure of the plant,” the resident adds.
Campaigning for his candidate, MNM founder and actor Kamal Haasan told a meeting in Thoothukudi during the weekend that his party was not opposing any industry. Residents, however, point out how he flew down to Thoothukudi specifically to express his support for the protesters demanding Sterlite’s closure.
“No one listened when we told the authorities to directly talk to the protesters. And finally when the whole affair turned violent, they realised what we told them was valid,” says the industrialist.
Political activists say that the Thoothukudi conflict has turned casteist and communal. “You cannot convince the Christians, especially the fishermen on the damage done by Sterlite protests issue. They are under the influence of the clergy and they refuse to wear their thinking hats,” says the local BJP leader involved in campaigning.
Tamilisai has refused to rake up the Sterlite issue, saying the matter is sub-judice. “She is scared that it could backfire. However, there are many who are upset over the closure and any slight signal from Tamilisai or BJP can help garner huge number of votes,” says a state BJP leader.
DMK, while safely avoiding raising the closure issue, is softly playing up the killing of 13 people. “What has happened is unfortunate (killing of 13 people). But development shouldn’t stop for that. Sterlite is the biggest industry in southern Tamil Nadu. Let the law take its own course to punish those responsible for the deaths. And let Sterlite be revived,” says Murugan.
An industrialist points out that when Sterlite was functioning, gypsum cost Rs 250 a tonne. Some of the locals bought it and sold it at a higher price, thus making their ends meet. “Now, a private sector firm in Thoothukudi is selling gypsum at Rs 600 a tonne,” the industrialist says adding that Sterlite provided slag from the factory free of cost to the locals.
“Life for the locals has been affected in many ways but looks like this is not the issue for them,” the industrialist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, adds.
The BJP and DMK are in a high voltage contest, vying for the dominant Nadar community votes. “This election is seeing the united Nadar community split in two camps — Hindus and Christians. Anti-Hindu statements of DMK leaders and their supporters are under scrutiny helping BJP draw the Hindu Nadars support,” says A S Pandian, a political activist.
There are some who even term this as a contest between “a full and half Nadar”. Tamilisai parents are Nadar, while for Kanimozhi her mother hails from the Nadar community.
There are two assembly segments like Ottapidaram and Kovilpatti, where presence of other communities like Thevars and Naidus can influence the voting pattern.
The presence of MNM candidate T P S Pon Kumaran, an exporter, could complicate the scenario for Kanimozhi and Tamilisai as he also hails from the Nadar community. Dr M Bhuvaneswaran contesting on AMMK ticket could mop up the votes of Thevars.
In these circumstances, the Sterlite issue could have proved handy. But no party wants to take the risk of raking up the controversy, fearing a backlash.
Thus, an issue that could have been the central point of this election has been pushed to the background. Come 23 May, we will get to know what really the people in and around Thoothukudi had thought about Sterlite before they exercised their franchise.