Lessons from Thoothukudi

Following what was evidently state-sponsored police violence that took the lives of 13 people protesting against the Sterlite copper plant at Thoothukudi, the subsequent state government order shutting down the unit permanently is hailed as a victory of the people’s struggle.

Thoothukudi is a manifestation of the conflict between development and environment. There are thousands of such cases of blatant violation of environmental laws related to the protection of air, water and soil.

India has a track record of legal provisions that aim to protect natural resources. Some of the major acts are the Water Act, 1984, to prevent water pollution, the Clean Air Act, 1981, to prevent air pollution, the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, to stop the destruction of forests and the Environment Protection Act, 1986, to protect the environment. All these laws are made with good intentions, but the problem lies in how they are implemented on the ground.

The Sterlite plant accounted for 40% of the country’s copper production, providing employment to about 2,500 people. The website of the company claims, “as we continue to grow, we are committed to the triple bottom line of People, Planet and Prosperity to create a sustainable future in a zero-harm environment for our communities.”

This commitment is challenged by the people who started the agitation against the plant for violation of legal provisions; basically, the functioning of the plant has led to increased air, water and soil pollution in the region. The concentration of pollution of the groundwater exceeded the limits set by the World Health Organisation.

The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) reports showed that the plant was polluting the environment through increased emissions set under the Air Act and Water Act.

As copper-smelting is a highly polluting process, high quantities of arsenic, cadmium, nickel and sulphates were found in soil samples from villages adjoining the plant. These poisonous substances were found to have caused the death of livestock and adverse effects on the health of local villagers.

Politics of development

Despite these blatant violations, how did the company continue to function for over two decades? The unholy alliance of industry and politicians from Tamil Nadu and the government in Delhi has the force of brute power to bypass these violations and function normally. The parochial mindset of politicians and money power wins over the interest of protection of natural resources.

The political economy of development has its roots in the corporate donations to political parties. The Sterlite Industries in Thoothukudi is a subsidiary of Vedanta group of companies that has donated huge sums of money to both the ruling BJP and opposition Congress party in violation of FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulatory Act).

It is intriguing as to how these two parties joined hands to amend the FCRA through the Finance Bill, 2018, that lets violators off the hook for receiving donations retrospectively form 1976. This shows the brazen power of the corporate sector over political parties to change the laws of the country. Further, they have made inroads even into the judiciary to influence their decisions.

The plant was shut down five times in the past due to violations, such as gas leaks. Finally, in 2013, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board directed the plant to be closed. It was challenged in the National Green Tribunal, which overturned the order and allowed the plant to operate. Surprisingly, the apex court upheld this judgement.

Obviously, all the pillars of democracy — parliament, judiciary and the executive — which are supposed to protect the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution to assure every citizen of a healthy, pollution-free environment have failed miserably in their duty.

Thoothukudi is just one instance of such violation. As Supreme Court lawyer Ritwick Dutta says, ”across India, mines, dams, industries and other activities operate in blatant violation of the law, specially environmental laws. Compliance is an exception, violation is the norm.”

In the race to achieve faster development and higher GDP growth, these issues of fundamental rights to clear air, water and soil is relegated to the background. The seed of this is sown by an unbridled consumer culture, where nature is converted into commodity. We have become so self-centred and individualistic that the well-being of the nature and community around us is of least concern.

Closing down the plant is not a solution. It is essential to address the fundamental problem of how we want India to develop. Is it through conserving the natural capital of air, soil and water? Or by destroying them and then finding technical solutions to fix the problem?

The technical fixes of inviting foreign capital or aping the development model that leads to decimation of nature’s capital is bound to lead to ecocide, inflicting heavy wounds on common people and their livelihood.

Unless we address this issue of ‘greed’ within us, many more Thoothukudis will manifest themselves in the coming years.

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Lessons from Thoothukudi

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