When the entire world is suffering from the pandemic and lockdowns, one tiny village in our country is certainly thrilled. This place is Thoothukudi in the Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu where a highly-polluting factory is locked down after years of inspiring community effort by its villagers. This factory, called the Sterlite Copper, is a subsidiary of the Vedanta Limited. It operated a huge copper smelter, which comprised a refinery, a phosphoric acid plant, and a sulphuric acid plant. (Psst! ‘Smelting’ is neither smelling nor melting! It is the process of taking out a metal from natural rocks. Therefore, it is highly toxic and polluting!)
The main pollutants of this smelter were sulphur dioxide and tiny dust particles. That is why, since 1992, when the plant was announced to be built, it was fiercely opposed. In fact, it was initially planned to be installed in the Zadgaon village of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. However, after a successful opposition led by the village folks there, it was kicked out but landed up in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu.
In 1996, after the factory’s establishment in Thoothukudi, the locals complained about increasing air and water pollution triggering respiratory and skin problems, fainting and other issues. “In every household, at least a couple of people are suffering,” said Selva Raj, a village resident. “Children are the worst affected.”
Unsurprisingly, Sterlite officials claimed otherwise. But the environment groups countered their assertion with a study by a district medical college. This study revealed that the iron traces in the waterbodies near the plant were up to 20 times more than the permissible limit. Not only that, it was found that the factory contaminated the scarce groundwater and fertile soil, and blatantly flouted the rules and regulations for running the plant. They even illegally released toxic waste into the highly sensitive Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, an area of coral reefs and mangrove forests! As a result, in 2010, the Madras High Court sealed the plant.
Soon after, the sealing ban was over, there were multiple instances of sulphur dioxide leakage from the factory. The most disastrous was in March 2013 when many people complained of suffocation, nausea, eye irritation, skin irritation, and even miscarriages. Hence, the plant was re-ordered for a closure, this time, by the state pollution control board. However, the very next month, the Supreme Court struck down this order and instead fined Sterlite Rs. 100 crore for causing pollution! But the culprits still escaped when a few months later, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) reopened this factory.
In 2018, the villagers of Kumarredyapuram, another village neighbouring the factory, appealed the District Collector to prohibit the building of the second smelting complex. The site for this construction was an agricultural land, which would have further encroached upon the livelihoods of the villagers in an already polluted region. Finally, in March 2018, the people’s anger shot and burst as far as London, when activists demonstrated bang outside the house of the Sterlite owner, Anil Agrawal. “Today, Tuticorin is heading towards becoming the capital of cancer!” said Prof. Fatima Babu, an ardent protestor.
Few months later, the unity of people proved its mettle when about 20,000 villagers fought for their life and environment. The police freaked out and resorted to lathi charge and shooting, injuring many and even killing 14 people! The umpteen sacrifices of the victims finally yielded results when the state government shut the plant permanently. Though again, the NGT set aside this order, the Supreme Court overruled it. The copper giant finally smoked its last in December 2018! Since then, this part of our country is definitely celebrating a lockdown, hard earned and well-deserved!