Anti-Sterlite protest: Why Tuticorin is different from other agitations

Police personnel baton charge at a protestor demanding the closure of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper unit, in Tuticorin. Photo: PTI
At least 12 people have lost their lives in the anti-Sterlite agitation that led to police firing in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) on Tuesday.

At the heart of the problem is the copper smelter plant of Sterlite, owned by Vedanta. Residents have been agitating for months that the plant has been polluting the groundwater, the level of which has been depleting, affecting farming and the environment. 

Mass agitations are not particularly uncommon in India. But a mass agitation led by an environment-related issue that has gone out of hand is not something that can be easily recalled. Former professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Dipankar Dasgupta, said though people might have generated a level of consciousness, a political motive cannot be ruled out.

Political analyst Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury added that the environment was probably becoming an issue, but local issues could have acted as the force multiplier.

According to reports, non-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and non-All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam groups are said to have joined the agitation. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), which has come to the forefront, voicing its concerns over the depleted environmental quality in the area, has demanded a judicial enquiry into the firing and is of the view that the unfortunate incident could have been avoided had the government been more responsive towards people’s concerns.  

Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the CPI(M), said it was the fallout of reckless industrialisation. “The problem with the country’s industrial policy is that it never takes environmental hazards into consideration,” he said. Not only is the polluted groundwater a health concern, its depletion was also affecting irrigation and snatching people’s livelihood, he said.

According to Basu Ray Chaudhury, the environment, in time to come, would be a subject that would find place in the manifestos of political parties, like land.

Land agitations have been made by Singur and Nandigram, but there have been agitations across the country, in Maharashtra, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, he pointed out. It prompted the framing of a new Land Acquisition Act to replace the Act of 1894.

In Nandigram, about 150 kilometres from Kolkata, an unspecified number of people — ranging from 14 to 50 — were killed on March 14, 2007, in a police firing ordered by the West Bengal government. About 4,000 policemen were ordered into Nandigram to fight a turf war that had rendered hundreds of CPI(M) supporters homeless, as the Trinamool Congress and Naxalites took up the cudgels against acquisition of 14,000 acres for a chemical special economic zone to be developed by Indonesia’s Salim group and NRI industrialist Prasoon Mukherjee displacing about 36 villages. It marked the beginning of the end of the Left Front government in West Bengal.

If one goes further back in time, then the Kalinganagar police firing in 2006 had claimed around 13 lives when tribals were agitating against the state government’s move to get the land vacated for Tata Steel’s proposed project.

Protests against land acquisition have taken much of the focus over the past decade and more. It remains to be seen whether people start attaching the same kind of importance to other issues like environment and water.

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