On May 22, 2018, Tamil Nadu police opened fire on thousands of people demonstrating against the expansion of Sterlite’s copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi. The residents were protesting against the Vedanta owned unit accusing it of causing severe environmental pollution in the entire region. One year after the violent incident in which 18 persons were shot dead and scores injured, People’s Watch recently released a report titled ‘A Year After Thoothukudi Burned’, during a press meet in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. A GroundXero report.
A report titled ‘A Year After Thoothukudi Burned’, was released on 22nd May 2019, during a press meet organized by noted human rights organisation People’s Watch in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Advocate Henri Tiphagne, Executive Director, People’s Watch, while briefing the media said that the report was prepared after a team from the organisation spent a week in Thoothukudi, listening to and documenting the travails, disappointments and the sufferings of over 40 different families, who either lost their family member or have someone gravely injured during the police firing on May 22, 2018.
The 77-page long report focuses on findings derived from interviews with families of the deceased and injured persons, progress of the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Inquiry Commission setup to look into the police firing, CBI Investigation into the incident, status of investigations made by National and State Human Rights Commission, attacks by the State agencies on various human rights defenders in Thoothukudi and the response of Sterlite over the past one year.
A brief Background
Residents and community organizations in Thoothukudi have been struggling for decades against pollution by Sterlite Industries’ copper smelting plant in the area. The company has been found in violation of several environmental and labour laws since it became operational in 1997. Environmental activists have documented groundwater and air pollution in the area and have petitioned various institutions including the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and National Green Tribunal (NGT) to shut down the polluting factory and bring the polluter to justice.
The peoples’ agitation demanding permanent closure of the smelter plant intensified since March 24, 2018. The protests were triggered after permission was granted to Sterlite to expand its operations and double its production capacity. The people of Thoothukudi and activists leading the protests accused Sterlite of misrepresentation of facts in the courts regarding environmental impact and pollution levels caused by the copper smelter plant. They alleged that the clearance for expansion of the plant has been obtained only after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA I) government had diluted environmental regulations by doing away with mandatory public consultation for expansion projects. (Read this article on how NDA I government helped Vedanta group obtain clearance using technical procedure bypassing mandatory public hearing).
On May 22, organizations and communities opposing the smelter plant had announced a peaceful protest demonstration at the District Collector’s office in Tuticorin to mark the 100th day of the struggle. The police had, as usual, imposed section 144 in the area and forcefully prevented the protest rallies from proceeding towards the District Collector’s office. The protest turned violent as the rallies neared the Collector’s office. Tamil Nadu police opened fire on the demonstrators in which 13 people were killed and hundreds were injured. Protestors and other eye-witnesses accused the Tamil Nadu police of firing at the unarmed demonstrators to kill, rather than to control and disperse the crowd. A few more persons died later, taking the toll to 18. The image of a policeman in yellow shirt, on top of a vehicle with a sniper gun, shooting at unarmed protestors continue to haunt us even today.
Compensation and Employment
All the families that People’s Watch interviewed have confirmed that the families of the deceased and injured have received full amount of compensation announced by the State Government. But, according to the report, there is a common feeling of dejection and disappointment among all the families as no punitive measures have been taken against any of the state officials, including the police officers, whose actions led to the deaths and grave injuries, and everything seems to be settled against the ex-gratia payments made. They said that the martyrdom of their family members cannot be weighed against the Rs 20 Lakh cash compensation.
For those injured, the payments of Rs 1.5 – 5 lakhs was found to be grossly inadequate as in several cases much more money than that was needed for the necessary medical expenses. Many of those with bullet injuries are now ‘physically challenged’ persons, and are some of the most affected. Each of those severely injured in police firing talked to the group about their family debts.
In addition to monetary compensation, the Government of Tamil Nadu also promised to provide employment to one of the family members of the deceased. According to the report, all the families of the deceased, except two, confirmed that one of the family members had been indeed given a government job. Out of the 14 persons entitled to such government jobs however, 12 have been appointed as Thalayaris (village assistants). A Thalayari assists the Village Administrative Officer (VAO), at a monthly salary of around Rs 12,000. The post is lesser in rank than that of a peon in a Government office, and this position does not make them eligible for any promotion in future. It possibly is one of the lowest levels of Government jobs available in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The government was so insensitive that in two cases, daughters of the deceased persons were given appointment as Thalayaris, even though both the girls were doing graduation from reputed colleges and had to abandon their studies to take up the job. At the least, the Government should have assured the girls suitable employment, and allowed them to complete their formal education with scholarships. In one case, a BBA graduate was posted as a Thalayari and in another case, one person was appointed as an assistant to a cook. In yet another case, an M.Sc-B.Ed graduate has been appointed as a Thalayari!
Lethargy in CBI Inquiry
The Madurai Bench of Madras High Court ordered for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on August 14, 2018, into the incidents of police firing in Thoothukudi. The CBI team visited the violence-affected areas. They questioned the officers (who ordered the firing), the policemen who were on duty, families of the deceased and injured persons. Though there were explicit directions from the court that the investigation should be completed within four months, it has been nine months until now and yet the investigation is not complete, and there is no clear picture of where the investigation is headed to.
In the FIR registered by the CBI, names of the policemen who were responsible were not mentioned and instead only two ‘general FIR’s were registered.
Commission of Inquiry headed Justice Aruna Jagadeesan
A day after the police firing, the Tamil Nadu government appointed a Commission of Inquiry consisting of a single member – Hon’ble Smt. Justice Aruna Jagadeesan – retired Judge of the High Court of Madras, to enquire into the causes and circumstances leading to the police firing that resulted in death and injuries and subsequent events at Thoothukudi and nearby areas including damages to public and private properties.
Until May 2019, a total of 329 persons have been examined by the Commission. The Commission has recorded unverified statements of 440 more persons, and there are still 200 Sterlite employees yet to be examined. Though the Commission was mandated to complete its investigation within three months of its appointment, it has been nearly a year now and yet it has 640 statements waiting to be examined.
The Jagadeesan Commission has however recommended to the district administration that adequate employment should be provided to the family member of the deceased as per his/her educational qualifications. But this recommendation was not adhered to by the Government. Strangely, the Commission is not even in possession of the ‘ballistic report’ of the police firing – something that would shed much light on the incident.
Failure of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)
Despite serious concerns which still remain, and with justice still not been delivered to the victims and their families, the NHRC closed the case stating:
“Since adequate compensation has been paid to the victims and appropriate steps have been taken by the State Government to bring law and order situation under control, and the Judicial Commission is already looking into the angle of use of force/police excesses, if any, no further intervention in the matter is required. Report is taken on record and the case stands closed.”
The NHRC could have in this case asked for details of the disciplinary action initiated against those senior officers whose command led to the fatal police actions on the fateful day. Till date not a single police officer has even been suspended. There is no FIR that names any police personnel responsible for the deaths and the several hundred injured persons. Also, many incidents of serious human rights violations took place after May 22, which the NHRC has failed to take cognisance of before unilaterally closing the case.
Democratic protests in Thoothukdi after police firing and its curtailment
After the police firing on May 22, 2018, the Tamil Nadu Government ordered for closure of the Sterlite plant, on May 28. As Sterlite management ramped up its efforts to reopen the plant, various protests started taking place in Thoothukudi demanding permanent closure of the plant. Most of these protests were denied permission by the police and they also put false cases on the organisers and participants. Many including Advocate Vanchi Nathan, State Coordinator of People’s Right Protection Centre were arrested, as were six members of Makkal Athikaram who were booked under the authoritarian National Security Act. While no permission was given to any protest meeting and activists were arrested for distributing pamphlets against Sterlite Industries, no objections were raised by the administration against the activities undertaken by Sterlite management to influence the public through their own meetings, events and processions.
Role of the State Government
The report notes that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Mr. Edapadi Palaniswamy has not met the victims of the police firing in Thoothukudi even after a year of the incident. In an attempt to delegitimize the genuine and peaceful protest of Thoothukudi residents, many state minsters commented that the police firing was caused due to the work of ‘extremists’. While the TN Government had officially defended its stance on closure of Sterlite in courts and at the NGT, it transferred Mr. Nasimuddin, Chairperson of the TNPCB, who was instrumental in passing the orders on 23.5.2018 asking for closure of the plant. Further, the TN Government has not yet made a cabinet decision on the closure of Sterlite, and has thereby passed the buck on to the courts.
The TN state administration has publicly accused those who were still leading the protests after the police firing, as ‘people who have indulged in violence (vanmuraialargal), extremists (Theevarvathigal) or terrorists (Bayangaravathigal)’. The large number of omnibus FIRs that were registered, were used generously to book anyone who belonged to any of the many ‘anti-Sterlite’ movements in the town and the district. The district administration tried to book protestors under various detention laws like the ‘Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders and Slum-Grabbers Act, 1982’ and the ‘National Security Act, 1980 (NSA)’. Unfortunately for the State Government, through a series of legal interventions challenging each of the detentions, all those arrested were released by July 2018.
This report by People’s Watch exposes the dubious roles of various state agencies involved in the investigations and meticulously documents the developments in Thoothukudi after the May 22 killings last year. Apprehending retaliations from State agencies, the names of those who gave interviews have not been disclosed in the report.
The report unequivocally points out that the people in Thoothukudi are resolute in not letting the struggle fail. Their cry of “Ban Sterlite!” continues to reverberate in the toxic air of Tuticorin.
Feature image source: Thoothukudi People Facebook page