THOOTHUKUDI: The struggle against Sterlite Copper started in Thoothukudi some 23 years ago.
Sterlite Copper is a leading copper manufacturer in the country, located in the SIPCOT complex of Thoothukudi. The plant manufactures copper rod, copper wire and other copper products. The unit falls under red category (large scale) encloses a copper refinery, phosphoric acid plant and a sulphuric acid plant. The copper smelter unit was of 4 lakh tonne per annum capacity.
While the unit has faced opposition from the very beginning — it received a Consent to Establish in 1995 from TN government — public support for the anti-Sterlite movement grew after an alleged gas leak on March 23, 2013 in which at least 50 employees of a nearby company were affected. While former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa ordered closure of the unit on March 29, 2013, the SC allowed operations to continue after penalising the company `100 crore on April 2, that year.
The Anti-Sterlite Movement leader Thamil Manthan told Express that the movement formed was formed in 1995 against the copper smelter. They protested with principles of non-violence and democratic way of rallies. Others who have been part of the movement for two decades include retired professor Fathima Babu, Thermal Raja, a local businessman and Krishnamurthy, of unorganised workers’ association.
In the early years, villages near the Sterlite plant backed rather than opposing it as they benefitted economically. Allegations of bribery also abound. “A councilor used to get `5 lakh and a Tata Sumo. The money could be more if you were a bigger politician,” alleges one of the earlier organisers of anti-Sterlite movement.Observers also say that the movement at that time fell apart as it was divided on caste lines in 1996. Four persons belonging to the Paravar community were shot dead in a police firing at port trust estate, which ended up in caste clash between the Nadars and Paravars.
In the past year, the movement has gained momentum as the company’s proposal for a second unit with a production capacity 4 lakh TPA, received permission. Social activists, led by Fatima Babu, floated anti-Sterlite protests last August demanding that expansion works be stopped and that the unit be permanently closed. With the number of cancer-related deaths happening in and around the city, the villagers who once backed the plant wanted to scrap it. “What use is the money when our lives are at stake,” says Jai Ganesh, whose father is battling cancer.
This year, villagers of Kummareddiarpuram, where the Sterlite unit expansion was planned, joined the movement. In February 2018, the Federation of Villages and Towns Against Sterlite was formed. The Federation claims to represent 18 villages and all 60 wards of Thoothukudi town. This time, the Federation took pains to ensure that all communities were represented including Thevars, Naickers, Vellalars and Dalits. Sources from the federation said that they refrained from appointing leadership to head the struggle, in a view that communal forces might hijack the agitation. Father Loyola, who is studying peace among different communities in Thoothukudi, said the unity among the public of different castes was a reason for successful mobilisation of the protest in 2018.