Protesters have made representations to political parties demanding that Sterlite Copper plant be sealed permanently.

Protests against Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi
news 2021 TAMIL NADU ASSEMBLY ELECTION Wednesday, March 31, 2021 - 12:57

Skipping lunch, on a sultry day, wearing a neatly ironed deep sky blue shirt and blue jeans, the streak of black viboothi on his forehead still intact--a clear effort to look presentable--32-year-old Mahesh had just returned after appearing before the Judicial Magistrate-III in Thoothukudi. He has been named in 15 cases for his involvement in the protests against Sterlite Copper -  a copper smelting factory. 

The 32-year-old, a resident of Kumarettiyapuram, had actively participated in the 100-day protest against Sterlite Copper for violating environmental norms, posing a health risk to residents after suspected gas leaks, and contaminating groundwater and air.

On May 22, 2018 - the 100th day of the protests against the copper plant-  protesters marching to Thoothukudi Collectorate against the directives of the authorities were shot at by the police. Thirteen people were killed in the police crackdown that followed on May 22 and 23.

Nearly three years on, and the case pertaining to the May 22-23 violence has been taken over by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), in which 71 protesters including a police inspector have been named. Parallely, several of them who organised the 100-day protest against the unit run by Vedanta Limited, have had to regularly appear before the lower courts in connection with other cases.

Mahesh says 15 cases have been ‘foisted’ upon him with charges including unlawful assembly; criminal intimidation; wrongful restraint; voluntarily causing hurt in committing robbery; sings, recites or utters any obscene song; disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant, among several others for their protests which included blocking roads, laying siege to the Pollution Control Board etc.

Mahesh

“Because of this, I have to attend the court at least thrice a month,” says Mahesh, who has resigned to the fact that he will have to face this ordeal if he has to fight for justice.

Mahesh, who was previously hired by Sterlite in various capacities as a contract employee, is now working as a mechanic. “Having to appear before the court thrice a month in different cases means that I cannot go to other towns and work. Even my movements are under the constant watch of the police,” he alleges.

Along with Mahesh, there are several others who are facing the same ordeal. However, as the protesters are fragmented owing to their political ideologies, it is hard to ascertain the exact number of people who are facing trial. 

Michael Anto Jenious, a resident of Rajapalayam, a coastal village approximately 10 kms from Sterlite unit, says, “On an average I attend the court at least four-five times in a month for different cases,” he says, and adds, “I have three cases against me.”

In Rajapalayam alone, 10 protesters are facing trial. The charges against them are similar to the cases against Mahesh. Working as a loan agent, attending the court proceedings often does make Michael’s life difficult, but he says, “It is certainly a tiring process, but we can’t abandon the fight midway, right?” He also alleges that he has been listed as a history sheeter, leading to constant harassment by the police. 

Sterlite as an election issue

Though all these protesters do not come under one umbrella organisation to collectively make resolutions ahead of the state Assembly elections, the protesters have independently approached political parties with a charter of common demands, which include revoking cases against the protesters and permanently closing down Sterlite Copper unit.  

“The protest against Sterlite was a people’s movement and barring a few everyone had participated in the agitation, so it is our demand to fully shut down the plant which has highly affected our health and deteriorated our air. So, when the DMK party’s president MK Stalin asked for our suggestions to include them in their manifesto, we demanded them to permanently shut down the operations of Sterlite,” recalls, M Krishnamoorthy, a member of Unorganized Workers’ Federation, who has been vocal against Sterlite.

As part of its poll manifesto, the DMK has promised to withdraw false cases on people who protested against Sterlite. While the ruling AIADMK has not made any specific promise, Chief Minister Edapaddi K Palaniswami had recently announced that he would consider revoking cases against Kudankulam protesters, in which 9000 persons are booked. The move kindled hope among protesters that they would be relieved of the harassment. “We had given a representation to the Chief Minister asking him to drop the charges against us, but so far he has not made any mention of it,” laments Michael.

The other demands of the protesters include giving appropriate jobs to the Sterlite victims. “The government to pacify the people gave name-sake jobs. One person who lost his limb due to the firing is given a village assistant job. How can he do such an arduous job? It is so insensitive,” alleges Krishnamoorthy. 

Sterlite has remained closed since May 24, 2018. In December 2020, when the company approached the Supreme Court appealing to overturn the Madras High Court’s verdict, the apex court refused to grant interim relief.

In Thoothukudi, perhaps sensing the anger of the people, the ruling AIADMK has not fielded a candidate, giving the seat instead to their ally, Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC). SDR Vijayaseelan is the TMC’s candidate while DMK has fielded their sitting MLA Geetha Jeevan.  Others in the fray include Sundar N of MNM and Velraj V of NTK.

However, irrespective of which party comes to power, Krishnamoorthy asserts that their fight to shut down the copper plant will continue. 

 

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