Vedanta’s Sterlite and the fatal Thoothukudi protests

From ToxicLeaks

May 2018 deaths at the Thoothukudi site[edit | edit source]

Thirteen environmental activists were killed on May 22, 2018, while protesting at the Sterlite Copper smelting facility in Thoothukudi, an Indian port city in the southern Tamil Nadu province. Seven months later, autopsy results of those who died showed that 12 of them were shot in the head or chest, half of them shot in the back when security forces used live fire to quell demonstrations against the smelter.

The Thoothukudi incident was the deadliest such incident in India in a decade, but it followed 22 years of frustration in a community that claims its air, water and soil are polluted by the Sterlite operations. Protesters were marking the 100th consecutive day of demonstrations against a planned expansion of the smelter they had been trying to shut down for years because of its harmful impacts, corraborated by research from both the Indian government and independent academics that detaill public health risks. The violent response at Thoothukudi – also called Tuticorin – was met by outrage in India and across the globe. A team of experts with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) condemned the police for an excessive use of force and called for inquiry and accountability.

“Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all business enterprises have a responsibility to respect human rights, including identifying, preventing, mitigating and accounting for how they address their adverse human rights impacts,” the experts said. In addition to an investigation of the police response, the UN experts called on Vedanta Resources and its Sterlite Copper subsidiary to “take immediate measures to mitigate pollution and to ensure access to safe water and health care.”

Vedanta’s history in Tamil Nadu[edit | edit source]

Vedanta Resources, based in the United Kingdom and owned by Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal, operates metals and mining businesses on four continents but primarily in India and Africa. Villagers living near its Konkola Copper Mines in Zambia prevailed in 2017 in seeking the right to sue the company in UK courts for environmental and public health damage when they faced the same issues that Indian towns report.

Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi is a subsidiary of Vedanta and accounts for nearly half of India’s copper output while employing thousands of people. It first sought to locate in 1992 in Ratnagiri but local officials there, under pressure from residents, commissioned studies that deterred them from approval. The alternate site in Thoothukudi was approved by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in 1994.

The TNPCB and other officials, activists say, failed to enforce a construction setback from the coast at the outset and put both people and the region’s biodiversity at risk from pollution. Protests began almost as soon as the TNPCB issued a license to operate in October 1996, and so did complaints about air quality. By 1998, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) was required to conduct a study that found a host of violations: gas leaks, heavy metal groundwater contamination, the production of unauthorized products at the site. It led to the first of many temporary Sterlite closures.

Multiple legal challenges to Sterlite operations followed, including a 2010 filing by environmental groups that led to a short-lived Madras High Court closure of the facility. A 2013 appeal found in Sterlite’s favor. Meanwhile, mounting evidence, including another NEERI report in 2005, showed environmental harm. The residents reported respiratory problems and other health impacts including high rates of cancer. A medical survey in 2006 found high incidence of respiratory illness due to air pollution and particulates tied to Sterlite; a 2010 research paper showed similar public health issues based on all regional industry, with air and water pollution tied to endocrine disruptions causing cancer, birth defects and neuro issues. Still, little was done to curb Sterlite’s dangerous practices. In fact, the government approved expansion.

India’s response to 2018 Sterlite incident[edit | edit source]

The deadly protests in May 2018 came as the Thoothukudi community pushed back against a planned Sterlite Copper expansion. It would double production to 800,000 tons per year, making it the second largest copper smelting operation in the world but increasing the health and environmental damage.

Advocates – noting the company’s significant political contributions – say Indian officials just pass the  enforcement decisions on Sterlite to others. “Even after multiple toxic gas leaks and after people proving that Sterlite blatantly violated environmental safeguards in a court of law, Sterlite has been able to expand operations in its Thoothukudi plant,” writes Lois Sofia in April 2018. “In the meantime, the TNPCB, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the Madras High court and the Supreme Court have been passing the buck among themselves: one shuts the plant, the other belays the order and opens it.”

After the May tragedy, activists were thrilled that the government shut Sterlite down. Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami ordered the facility closed permanently, giving hope to a community grieving their losses while claiming victory after 22 years. That victory, like all the others, was short lived. The NGT reversed the local decision, gave the green light for Sterlite operations to resume, and Vedanta announced in December 2018 that it will appeal to the Supreme Court to enforce the NGT decision.

Promises of ‘green heaven’ from Sterlite and Agarwal[edit | edit source]

Both the company and its leader deny that Sterlite is guilty of compliance failures or wrongdoing that would lead to liability for health or environmental consequences. When the TNPCB ordered another shutdown in early 2018,  before the shootings, the company blamed it on politics, not facts. "Closure of the Sterlite Copper plant is an unfortunate development, especially since we have operated the plant for over 22 years in the most transparent and sustainable way, contributing to Tuticorin and the state's socioeconomic development," said Agarwal. Sterlite has remained unrepentant since the May deaths. A December 2018 statement celebrates the NGT reversal, so that Thoothukudi can get back to “normal.”

Meanwhile, a “Know the Truth” website operated by the company refutes nearly every allegation with FAQ answers on cancer rates, groundwater pollution, marine life, stack emissions. “We have data and research to prove that these allegations are not true, and would like to reiterate that the Sterlite Copper plant has been operating within all applicable environmental regulations and standards,” says Sterlite.

On December 21, the company announced new investment in a “Clean and Green Thoothukudi” that will support schools, a hospital, a desalination plant, and youth employment and development programs – along with the planting of one million trees across the city. The investment follows Sterlite’s effort to connect with some 1,500 families and rebuild good will. It will create a “green heaven,” the company says. While the initiatives may prove welcome, they still won’t clean up Sterlite’s copper smelter mess. Nor will it replace the cancer victims, the injured workers, or those who died fighting for their future.