13 protesters against copper plant in India killed after police open fire

Public protests at the copper smelter plant of Sterlite Industries in the town of Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, India, were met with police fire during the last two days, with 13 protesters killed and and hundreds injured. MRINALINI SHINDE and AMEYA BOKIL report

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered demanding the [copper] plant be shut down .. violence by the police ensued on the 100th day of the protest.

Protests against the Sterlite copper plant have been continuing for two decades after the plant was set up in 1998 - as this summary shows - and in the last few days police shooting has resulted in more than 13 deaths.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered demanding the plant be shut down in March 2018, campaigning against the contamination of local water sources, leading to shops shutting in solidarity, and diaspora protests outside the offices of Vedanta in London.

The violence by the police erupted on the 100th day of the protests. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has defended the police firing, tweeting “[w]hen someone hits you, you naturally tend to defend yourselves”.

Environmental pollution

The district of Thoothukudi is reeling from the tragedy, combined with the consequences of the environmental pollution from the plant. The state government on Wednesday ordered the suspension of all internet services in Thoothukudi and two adjoining districts for five days. Yesterday morning, the provincial Pollution Control Board finally ordered the closure of the plant, by cutting off its supply of electricity.

The following timeline of events details the number of judicial fora and agencies involved in the proceedings involving the Sterlite plant, before the ill-fated protests of the past week.

Public Participation

Public participation and peaceful protests have become a key tenet of modern Indian environmentalism. Primarily, the currently applicable Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of 2006 demands projects requiring environmental clearance to necessarily undergo public consultation before the clearance is granted, and the objections of local affected persons are taken into account while granting the clearance.

A core issue in the Sterlite dispute has been whether public consultation was necessary for Sterlite to expand its plant in 2014, which was after the enactment of the EIA Notification.

While the then liberal (UPA) government clarified in 2014 that they would have to undergo public consultation, the new more right leaning (NDA) government that came to power ten days later interpreted the law differently, and decided that Sterlite did not have to undergo public consultation (this interpretation was later held to be illegal by the National Green Tribunal in 2016).

Secondly, the enactment of the Right to Information Act, 2005 has granted citizens the right to access information from public authorities who are required to maintain those records to be made available to the public in a time-bound manner, introducing a necessary layer of documentary accountability on environmental agencies.

Thirdly, in 2010, India established the National Green Tribunal (NGT) as a forum to decide on environmental disputes with expert judges, and accessible rules of procedure and evidence. It was a welcome step, permitting citizens with limited means to access environmental justice.

However, there has been recent scaling down of the tribunal’s strength and powers due to lack of appointment of judges, and as of writing this piece, the Central, Western and Eastern Benches of the tribunal have posted on the website that they are unable to hear cases as scheduled.

These laws and structures when allowed to function to their full potential do have the power to overturn an undemocratic colonial legacy that in using arms against citizens.

Protests and Repercussions

While it is a given that the State exercises control and maintains compliance with its laws through the use of an extensive penal code and its enforcement arm: the police force, most of India’s rules of criminal procedure, police practices and penal provisions still stem from its past colonial imperial government which had a direct stake in controlling the local citizenry in the interest of safeguarding their colonial rule.

This is especially relevant given the past colonial government’s financial and administrative interest over natural resources like water, minerals, forests and land which belonged the community. Today, the interests of the Indian government are neoliberal and so the protection afforded to these interests by police excesses are globalised.

In the “first comprehensive worldwide assessment of violent repression of grassroots environmental protests” in 2016, researchers at Wesleyan University found that “violence against peaceful environmental protesters occurred most frequently when communities that included marginalized groups protested natural resource extraction in their community.”

Take the instance of the police action during the Dakota Access pipeline protest in the United States of America, where dozens were injured after the police used water cannons on the protestors, largely made up of Native Americans.

The use of criminal provisions and enforcement agencies in curbing public participation is a legacy of our colonial laws, a legacy which has raised its head repeatedly in independent India, from the Chipko movement in the 1970s, to police firing killing 13 'adivasi' or tribal citizens protesting against land acquisition for a Tata Steel project in Kalinganagar in 2006 and other similar instances.

There are multiple instances where the police are used to quell protesting citizens, sometimes with fatal consequences, and environmental protests feature often among instances of casualty. An example of the Indian police’s colonial legacy is seen in the enthusiastic deployment of wooden-sticks for maintenance of order through ‘lathi-charge’, the history of which has been detailed here.

Democratisation of dissent

The recent Sterlite protests in the Tamil Nadu province bring to light not only an issue of police excess. They also contextualise the violent repercussions within a network of beneficiaries of that violence, the foremost being corporations who benefit from the quelling of public protests against their capital interests.

There is currently an effort to characterise the current state of affairs as solely being the doing of the government in power, but the twenty-five year history of the Sterlite plant painfully illustrates that no major political party in the region has clean hands when it comes to complicity. 

When protesters seeking environmental justice are killed, this relationship of trust is breached and realigned in favour of private instead of public interest. The fact that citizens must resort to protesting on the streets in order to seek environmental justice, in numbers that the government deems poses a threat to its police forces, is indicative of the decay of our judicial and legislative safeguards against environmental pollution.

Unfortunately, the withdrawal and limited success of the judiciary and the failure of participatory processes written into Indian law has left matters of democracy in the hands of the police administration, the only intermediary of the State directly interacting with the public on the ground. 

The police in Thoothukudi reacted in the only way they know how to. Until the Indian police can be democratised, other public institutions must come forward to mediate public will.

These Authors

Mrinalini Shinde is a researcher in comparative environmental law at the University of Cologne, Germany, and has previously practiced as an Advocate before the National Green Tribunal in India. Ameya Bokil is a Research Associate at the Centre for Social Justice in Ahmedabad, India.

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