40-year-old Surjeet*, a top official in Sterlite Copper, has woken up every night this week to calm down his four-year-old son. The child springs up in terror shouting, "Pappa, please stop it, pappa please stop it" as he remains haunted by the visuals of arson he witnessed at his residential quarters in Thoothukudi on May 22. Surjeet's 70-year-old father, meanwhile, has been admitted to hospital following the mental trauma of watching angry protesters break into their safe space and set their cars on fire.
Surjeet along with 200 other families have now moved out of the two residential complexes allotted for them by Vedanata Resources Ltd but the scars of the incident remain deeply etched in their minds.
Tamira - I and Tamira - II are like townships by themselves and are located near the Sterlite power plant and behind the Collectorate respectively. When the attack first began on Tamira - II, Surjeet was at the copper smelter, while his family was trapped in the house. The company had anticipated violence and the deployment of security forces was seven times the regular amount. 15 policemen were further stationed at the venue to protect the tenants. When the crowds came, however, the men in khakhi allegedly fled.
"The quarters is surrounded by tall walls and strong gates. It is difficult for people to barge in. But the mobs scaled the walls, broke the lock and were pre- determined to unleash complete violence," alleges Surjeet. "They worked in teams, setting fire to cars. The sedan that you see in the CCTV footage, which is being set on fire, that is actually mine. Their intention was not just to vandalise vehicles but to harm people too. If the police hadn't sent back up, who knows what they would have done" he goes on to allege.
Asked to leave the township
At Tamara - I where 43-year-old Jayanthi* lived, the anguish was no less. As a senior employee in the company, she received multiple distress calls from the other complex and was on edge as residents waited for the violence to spill over to their homes. The atmosphere, she says, was one of abject terror.
"I've lived in Thoothukudi for over 20 years and I did not think in my wildest dreams that the people would turn so violent," says the mother of two. "We all left the complex and were taken away in vehicles to a shop at least 20 kilometres away. But soon, men in bikes began to come take photographs of us and we knew our location was compromised. The management then moved us all to Madurai where we were put up in hotels. From there, we were told to return to our native places and work from there," she recalls.
Jayanthi belongs to Tamil Nadu but several other employees had to leave the state without any belongings or even clothes. With schools reopening, they are afraid that this sudden move will affect their children's education.
"For now, we are helping the operations and doing the data reporting from wherever we are. But we have to see how this progresses and when the company will reopen," she says.
But what about the allegations of pollution and violation of environmental norms by the company? Do they not believe in the cause that Thoothukudi was fighting for?
"Those are baseless accusations. The company has taken all measures necessary to ensure minimal emissions. We are a zero-discharge unit as well, nothing goes to the mother earth. The point of this violent protest was just to ensure that employees are too scared to return to Sterlite," says Surjeet.
According to senior officials, the violent protests were allegedly the work of Sterlite's competition in the copper industry.
"This has begun after plans for expansion were announced. Those instigating the protests think that if nobody comes to work, then the plant won't run. But if we thought that the unit was polluting and causing illnesses would we bring our children and families here and live with them?" asks Jayanthi. "I am a living example of how healthy the employees are," she adds.
Employee vs employee
Sterlite has a total of 1,100 direct employees and about 3,000 contract labourers at any point of time. But this claim of 'conspiracy' against the company, however, comes only from the higher echelons.
As TNM traversed through the villages of Thoothukudi, we met multiple mid-level management staff and labourers who worked on contract. And when offered this defence from their bosses, they scoffed in disbelief.
"These are people who sit in their AC rooms all day and don't even come to the shop floor," says 29-year-old Ramesh*, who has been a supervisor in the electrical department of the company. His work, he claims, took him to every nook and corner of the plant. It was close to 7pm and he had just returned from the unit after a day's work. "I am now part of the security department. But back in 2017 when I would walk into the factory, my eyes would burn almost immediately. Despite respiratory devices, we could not stand there for over one hour. Your lungs would feel like they are on fire," he adds.
In Pandarampatti village, which is just five kilometres from the plant, out of 3000 people, at least one third had worked at the Sterlite copper smelter at some point as a contract labourer. Several of these workers would labour through the day in Sterlite and come back in the evening to attend meetings against the company.
"I was a fitter in the boiler area and worked with the mechanical department," says Suresh from Pandarampatti village. "I stopped going because my lungs used to burn from being in that air for too long. And slowly your joints would start paining as well. It was not worth the money," he adds.
But wasn't it a zero-discharge plant?
"Not at all," says Ramesh. "I have seen them empty the acid into the ground with my own eyes," he alleges, pulling out his phone to present photographic evidence.
But higher officials deny the allegation. "We have electro-static precipitators which reduces the sulphur dioxide content to 0.0001 percent. Sulphur dioxide is completely converted into sulphuric acid. None of this goes to the ground," says Surjeet.
Despite his claims, however, it is a fact that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) refused to renew Sterlite's application to extend the Consent to Operate (CTO). Amongst the reasons offered by the board for this decision is the company's improper waste disposal mechanism. Sterlite allegedly generates and disposes hazardous waste without valid authorisation. In addition to this copper slag - a byproduct of copper extraction by smelting - is allowed to accumulate near residential areas. The slag itself contains heavy metals with hazardous properties.
'But we breathe the same air'
Another argument put forth by the higher officials was that they drink the same water and breathe the same air as the residents of Thoothukudi.
"Shouldn't we also be affected by these ailments then?" asks Surjeeth. "All employees have annual health check-ups while those on contract undergo check-ups every six months. I can't say that there are zero cases of cancer or respiratory disorders. The one odd case that happens, however, cannot simply be attributed to the plant," he argues.
Employees from the villages, however, question the premise of the argument.
"We know that Tamira does not use ground water. I have seen the pipelines that bring water to them from Thamirabharani," alleges Ramesh. "As for the air, they need to come to the area where the smelting happens. Why let them just sleep outside for a month and see. They will know, what the residents here go through," he adds.
But what about the livelihoods of the employees and workers now?
"We can find other jobs. If Sterlite is permanently shut down, more companies will come in its place," says Suresh. "But we can't risk the lives of our future generations, just to keep our stomachs temporarily full."
*Names changed on request