Over 250 people were detained in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district on Tuesday as they held a hunger strike against the expansion of the Sterlite Copper plant.
The protesters included activists who have opposed the plant for over two decades and villagers from Kumarattiyapuram village.
Part of the Vedanta group, the Sterlite Copper plant gained notoriety in 2013 when it was fined Rs 100 crore by the Supreme Court. This came after the land and water in the vicinity had been polluted following a gas leak in the plant. It was also found that the plant had been functioning without approval for a considerable period of time. Despite this, the apex court did not order for the plant to be shut down. The plant continued to operate, sparking occasional protests in the area. However, the protests gathered steam after the company announced its decision to expand the unit and take up more land in the district.
"The protest is not new and has been simmering for years now. Due to effluents from the plant, people in the district are already using contaminated water and are facing its consequences," said Kittu, a protester from Thoothukudi who has been fighting against the copper plant for 22 years.
"The people in the village began protesting four days ago. The began the protest as soon as news of the expansion reached them. On Monday, they began a hunger strike in front of a local cemetery. Activists, women and children were all involved," he added.The police allegedly warned the group and demanded that they disperse. When they did not agree, the police forcefully removed them.
"People were peacefully protesting and the police arrested 270 agitators, including children, and took them away. What is wrong in speaking out against a plant that is ruining their lives?" asked Kittu.
"The company had all the permissions it required to expand the plant. They had clearances from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board as well. So, the protests were completely unlawful," said Mahendran, the Thoothukudi Superintendent of Police.
"We released all the children. The women have to be bailed out. But we have slapped cases against 8 persons who instigated the protests," he added.
The cases booked against eight agitators fall under section 188 (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), section 143 (punishment to a member of an unlawful assembly) and section 441 (Criminal trespassing).
Villagers have been complaining of ailments such as asthma and other respiratory diseases.
"We are unable to breathe during the night because of the smoke. When we get up, there is a burning sensation in our throats," said 31-year-old Dhanalakshmi, who lives in the area where the plant is situated.
"My children suffer the most. They have wheezing problems and are even fainting and falling in school because they have become so weak. Infertility is also a rising problem in our village," she added. 18-year-old Mahalakshmi, who lives with her family, alleged that the company disposed of its waste on the village roads. "My father would walk on these roads barefoot and has developed a terrible rash. It is getting worse every day and these people are to blame," she said.
"How can we allow them to expand operations further?" she questioned.
According to environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, air pollution is already a matter of worry in Thoothukudi. A copper smelter, he said, would make an already bad situation worse.
"Copper smelters are very polluting industries. They lead to the release of sulphur dioxide and dust particles in the air. In addition to this, a plant such as this will require a lot of surface water and resources, which should go for agriculture. Drinking water supply will be depleted," he said.