Arul attended the phone call after a long ring and spoke in a muffled voice. “You can’t come to my village as there is police everywhere. There are barricades and the police don’t even allow us to live in peace,” the man in his twenties told this DH correspondent who wanted to visit A Kumarettiyapuram, the first village to erupt in protest against Sterlite Copper’s expansion plans.
And when this correspondent visited the village an hour later, he could see how true Arul’s words were — policemen in groups were sitting next to almost every shop in the tiny village which people feel is more of a hindrance for them than a help.
“They are a nuisance. They are here round the clock peeping into what we do, whom we talk and where we go. You stand here and talk to me for five minutes, one of the men in khaki would come this way pretending to take a stroll along the road,” Vellathai told DH.
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She continued: “What is our crime? Opposing Sterlite Copper plant and its expansion plans as it was wrecking our lives? Is opposing a factory such big a crime that we need to be put under surveillance? Nothing can change our mind from opposing the plant. We will not budge from our stand.”
Asked about a few residents of their village changing their stand and supporting the plant, Arul alleged that they were being influenced by “external factors.” “How can they change their mind in just a few months’ time? They were with us and participated in the protests. But have now jumped to the other side of the fence,” Arul said. A majority of those residing in South Veerapandiapuram, the village next to A Kumarettiyapuram, are now in favour of re-opening the Sterlite plant.
“Yes. They are supporting the other side. Anyway, they are being influenced by contractors and lorry owners who want the plant to be opened to further their business,” another woman,
Arul spent nearly a month in Palayamkottai Central Jail in the nearby Tirunelveli district following his arrest for his “role” in the May 22 anti-Sterlite protests that ended in bloodshed. A majority of the residents of this village are still vociferous in their opposition to the reopening of the plant and its expansion plans. The villagers began their protest in February by observing a fast and soon it was lapped by organisations that were against the factory alleging that it was responsible for much of Thoothukudi’s pollution woes – more than 20,000 people marched in the port town on March 24 and the 100th day of their protest observed on May 22 ended in mayhem.
Impact on health
Their allegation against the company is that it was polluting the groundwater and the smoke emanating from the plant was causing health problems.
Most of the villagers in A Kumarettiyapuram who spoke to DH said they were living in a state of “fear psychosis” due to police presence. “We are being constantly monitored by the police and our own villagers who are against our stand. We live in a perpetual sense of fear though eight months have passed since the bloody protests. Why can’t they allow us to lead a peaceful life?” Sundari asked.
But as you cross this village and enter South Veerapandiapuram, the pro-Sterlite voices get stronger. “I have myself submitted a petition to the district collector demanding that Sterlite Copper be opened. We need jobs,” Muthu, a resident of South Veerapandiapuram, said.
On the road leading to these villages from the Sterlite plant, Maniganesh said he was opposed to the plant, but needs a job to make both ends meet. “I feel the plant should not be opened, but a way should be found to address the employment needs of the people. We are able to breathe fresh air after a very long time,” Maniganesh said.
Samugalakshmi, a daily wage labourer in A Kumarettiyapuram, spoke as she sat cross-legged overlooking a dry water body. “We have been robbed of our water by the industries that are located in Thoothukudi,” she rued.
Sources in the district administration and police, however, deny the allegations that the men in khaki still look out for men who had allegedly indulged in violence.