Violent state machinery
The Sterlite plant episode is a clear case of violation of laws. The government must take accountability
Last week, Tamil Nadu witnessed the violent face of state machinery that is often reserved for the disturbed or conflict-ridden areas of Northeast, Chhattisgarh and Jammu & Kashmir. On May 22, 2018, 13 protestors were gunned down in cold blood by the Tamil Nadu police, when they were protesting against the Sterlite Copper plant, a unit of Vedanta Limited, at Thoothikudi, Tamil Nadu, demanding its closure, owing to the plant polluting the entire area. It was on the occasion of the 100th day of peaceful protests that the police grotesquely fired on the peaceful protestors, which left 13 persons dead and more than 65 persons injured.
The local residents had been protesting against the Sterlite Copper plant, for almost a decade, for violating almost all environmental and anti-pollution norms. Its closure has been ordered many times by the Madras High Court, for not following the laws.
Incidents of cancer, throat and eye infections rose considerably in the area, since 1998, when the plant was first set up. The situation became so bad that in 2013, the Supreme Court directed Sterlite Copper to pay Rs 100 crore as fine, for causing vast damage to the water and land resources of the area, owing to a gas leak. Despite strictures from several courts, Sterlite failed to follow either environmental regulations or norms of bringing down its polluting effluents. In March 2018, reports appeared that the plant was to be expanded, which finally led the local residents to protest again demanding a halt on the expansion, as well the closure of the plant.
After the police killings of the protestors, the Tamil Nadu government has appointed a one person committee under the aegis of Justice Aruna Jagadeesan to conduct an enquiry. Meanwhile, Supreme Court lawyer GS Mani filed a petition in the Apex court for the registration of FIR against the Tuticorin SP and other police officials, and sought a CBI probe into the whole case, as the police will not be unbiased in the issue. He further sought that the internet services of the area be restored as they had been suspended after the incident. It called the Committee appointed by the Government as an eye-wash and sought a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the families of the deceased.
At the same time, the Madras High Court has stayed the expansion of the plant, till a mandatory public hearing is conducted. The Court granted the authorities four months to decide the issue. Another petition was filed by a Delhi lawyer for an independent probe into the killings. The Delhi High Court referred the issue to the National Human Rights Commission. The lawyer will have to make a representation before the NHRC on May 29. He had earlier petitioned to the body on May 23, but the Commission took no avail and so he had to move the High Court. The NHRC has taken due cognizance of the matter. Latest reports suggest that the Tamil Nadu Government had ordered the permanent closure of the plant, in light of the outcry against the brutal police firing.
Though many court developments have taken place in the last few days, the issue remains that the regulators have failed to do their job, and the Courts have also not held Sterlite accountable for its violations. The history of Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothikudi is, in fact, the history of blatant non-compliance with the environmental regulations as well as the government undermining its own environmental regime to allow polluting industries like Sterlite to flourish, in complete negation of the right to clean environment for local residents. It is also evident that companies like Vedanta have shown contempt for both environmental norms as well as court directions and take pride in flouting them openly. And, in the name of 'ease of doing business', the current political regime actually encourages such open violations by first diluting the strict environmental regulations, then by overlooking the companies egregious actions as well as by making the regulatory authorities toothless.
Unless the government takes environmental concerns seriously and implements the law, instead of diluting it, there is little hope that polluting behemoths like Vedanta will change their practices, or even bother to make an attempt. What can one comment of a state that kills its own people for demanding clean air and clean water, while actively working in favour of business interests? At the same time, protestors at Thoothikudi have shown that land and local environment have to be protected at any cost, sometimes with one's life.
(The author is an Attorney. The views expressed are strictly personal)