Remembering the Thoothukkudi Sterlite protest firing

On the first anniversary of the Thoothukkudi massacre, DH recaps the incident through the accounts of our correspondent — E T B Sivapriyan — who wrote several reports from ground zero with sustained coverage over time. (PTI File Photo)

A year ago, on this day, in the port town of Thoothukkudi in Tamil Nadu, thirteen lives were snatched by the police as they opened fire on unarmed protestors on the 100th day of their protest. They were demanding the closure of a copper smelting unit due to environmental and health concerns.
 
A year on, today, the kin of the victims of the 'Thoothukkudi massacre' or also known as 'Sterlite Protest Firing', paid tribute to those who lost their lives as they lit their portraits with candles at events held in different parts of the district.

But justice still eludes them.
 
So far, while the CBI probe into the incident that began more than nine months ago has not resulted in any charge sheet being filed, other reports and probes such as a commission set up by the state and headed by retired judge Aruna Jagadeesan have also not been completed.
 
Meanwhile, reports suggest that attempts to reopen the Sterlite copper plant are underway through legal channels despite the opposition from the families of the murdered protestors who are urging the Tamil Nadu government to pass a special resolution in the assembly resolving to close the copper smelter permanently.

On the first anniversary of the Thoothukkudi massacre, DH recaps the incident through the accounts of our correspondent — E T B Sivapriyan — who wrote several reports from ground zero with sustained coverage over time.

Thoothukkudi on boil

In this first piece, Sivapriyan’s ground report unearths important facts and details from the spot.
 
Police firing shot and killed protesters who were marching towards the Thoothukkudi Collectorate, 5 kms away from the centre of the city.
 
Relatives of the first 11 victims, initially,  refused to accept the bodies, causing the police to fight pitched battles with residents in several areas, especially in the locality near the District Government Hospital. The police resorted to mild lathi charge through the day to disperse the crowd outside the hospital.

 Several high profile visitors in the opposition such as in opposition Leader M K Stalin, MDMK chief Vaiko and Makkal Needhi Maiam chief Kamal Haasan also visited the government hospitals to meet the injured and the families of those killed. Later, the district police filed cases against several of these political leaders for defying prohibitory orders.

“As the police went for a routine check at Anna Nagar, yards away from the government hospital, some locals are said to have pelted stones at them prompting them to use force. As police used guns to bring the situation under control, 22-year-old Kaliappan was killed in the 6th Street of Anna Nagar.

 Video footage showed police firing at Kaliappan, who fell to the ground instantly. As cries of locals rented the air, police dragged his body and transported it to the hospital through an ambulance. The fresh violence led to a heightening of tension in the port city that has seen peaceful protest over the issue since mid-February,” writes Sivapriyan.
 
 Police targeted the protesters; shot at head: Victims’ families
 

A private security guard stands in front of the main gate of Sterlite Industries Ltd Photo: REUTERS

Jhansi Rani had just come out of her house in Thirespuram area near the Thoothukkudi beach on Tuesday evening to go to the neighbourhood grocery shop.

 That is when a huge police contingent had come to the area for routine patrol and had rounded up a group of youth who had gathered there.

 Rani, outspoken by nature and a brave woman, engaged with the police seeking to know why the youngsters were rounded up.

 And as the police battled with stones that came from both sides, they resorted to mild force in the beginning and later used guns to disperse the crowd.

 Rani died instantly after being hit by a bullet to her head.

 "Her death was so gory that the skull broke and her brain was thrown out on the streets. And the police did not stop at that. They dragged her body out of the area, bundled it into a vehicle and transported it to the government hospital," Robert Villavarayar, Rani’s relative, told DH’s Sivapriyan.

A Reuters exclusive report on the firing on demonstrators after studying and reviewing reports by forensic medicine experts from several government hospitals found that twelve of the 13 protesters killed were hit by bullets in the head or chest, and half of those were shot from behind. 

For the youngest victim, J. Snowlin, the bullet entered the back of her head and exit through her mouth, the autopsy found, according to Reuters.

Thoothukkudi back on feet, almost

In the aftermath of the massacre, everything in the ‘pearl’ city of India, came to a standstill. 

Prohibitory orders were imposed to quell the protests that erupted in anger over the police actions and essential services like internet and transport were suspended. These restrictions were slowly lifted as the situation limped into normalcy.

  Thoothukkudi: TN's Bhopal?

 His next report mentioned about the studies showing that Sterlite is the major pollutant of Thoothukkudi’s air and water. The latest report of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) confirmed that water around the smelter is heavily contaminated. 

Also asthmatic bronchitis, asthma, pharyngitis, sinusitis, loss of eyesight, skin diseases and menstrual disorders, like hemorrhagic and dysmenorrhea, are some of the diseases that are common in and around the area where the factory is located. 

The article also mentioned the violation of rules. The under-designed chimneys of the factory obstruct the scattering of heavy air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, which is a major cause for an increased ground-level concentration of the pollutants in areas close to the plant. In adverse weather conditions, the people of Thoothukkudi are prone to suffocation.

One allowed, the other party nurtured Sterlite

Sivapriyan's next report on the political forces that operate in Tamil Nadu showed the role both AIADMK and DMK played in ensuring the establishment and consolidation of the factory. AIADMK’s late J Jayalalitha allowed the foundation of Sterlite in 1994, and in 1996 during the DMK regime, in 1996, that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) gave the No Objection Certificate (NOC).

DMK sanctioned the order for allotment of land for Sterlite’s expansion in 2009 and 2010. In 2001-2006, the Jayalalitha government had allotted Sterlite land for expanding its plant. 

Ecology vs Economy in Thoothukkkudi​

The closure of the factory had an impact on the economy and livelihoods of the town, according to the report. While several thousand people have lost jobs due to the plant’s closure, the worst hit are the contractual employees and those who were indirectly dependent on Sterlite Copper, which absorbed only its permanent employees. 

A private security guard stands in front of the main gate of Sterlite Industries Ltd Photo: REUTERS
On the economy side, the Customs Department and the V O Chidambaranar incurred heavy losses. Several lorry and tipper owners, who had invested in buying more vehicles in the hope that the Sterlite’s expansion plans would get them more trips, are in dire financial crisis.

“Since the plant has been closed, we have not been getting any revenue from Sterlite Copper. In the last fiscal, they paid around Rs 1,300 crore and this time the revenue from them is nil as they have stopped imports. Sterlite Copper is a large importer in Thoothukkudi,” K V V G Diwakar, Commissioner of Customs, Thoothukkudi, told DH's Sivapriyan. 

 Sterlite Copper closure cripples downstream industries

This report focused on the unemployment that grew as small-scale industries suffered. As many as 400 small-scale industries that are dependent on copper produced within the country have suffered losses since there was a huge gap between demand and supply of the commodity.

While almost all permanent employees have been absorbed by Sterlite Copper in its group companies, temporary employees and others who were dependent on the copper smelter have been severely hit due to the shutdown. Several hundred contractual employees have lost their jobs – many are yet to find alternate employment, and some have left the Thoothukkudi town in search of greener pastures.

Won't allow reopening of Sterlite: Victims’ families 

At a press conference held by the relatives of the victims a day after the supporter's rally, the family members of most of the 13 who were killed demanded a referendum in the port city to decide the fate of the Vedanta-owned copper smelter.

 Sivapriyan's report elaborates the relatives' accusation against the TN government being “hand in gloves” with Sterlite Copper. They wanted the government to erect a memorial for those who were killed. They also demanded a referendum to makes things clearer, as mentioned by Stephen, the brother of Gladston, who was shot in the head.

With no jobs, contract workers in distress

Drawing the needs and arguments of the supporters, ETB Sivapriyan iterates the story of former employees and lorry drivers and other workers associated with the Sterlite plant.
Stories of Mohan, Vasudevan, Gunasekaran and Bhaskar are a few of the workers Sivapriyan highlighted.

Karthick, who was working in the Effluent Treatment Plant of Sterlite Copper, tells Sivapriyan "If that is the case, why did not any one of those working here get affected. These theories are baseless and cannot be proved."

Constant police presence creates fear in villagers

“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," says Vellathai to Sivapriyan.

In this report, he notes the constant police surveillance causing Kumarettiyapuram villagers' to live in "fear psychosis" and them being "robbed from their water".He also points out the ideologies of employee-turned-opposers.

May 22 still haunts families of Sterlite firing victims

The last in ETB Sivapriyan's series, this report begins with the heartbreaking story of Vanitha, the mother of the youngest victim of the police firing, Snowlin.

 Jesubalan, the husband of Jhansi, is a fisherman who has not ventured into the sea as he wants to take care of his daughters as a single parent.

Jesubalan sitting next to his wife, Jhansi's photo

“I don’t trust these politicians. They don’t do what they say," Jesubalan said. Although, he says that he will vote, Jesubalan is sceptical that Sterlite Copper would be closed. 

(Compiled by Aishwaryaa R, Pranshu Rathee and Swapnajit Kundu)

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