Chennai: Protests against Vedanta's Sterlite copper unit in Tamil Nadu's Thoothukudi took a violent turn on Tuesday with at least 11 people being killed in alleged police firing. Thirty others were left injured as a mob of 20,000 people went on a rampage here demanding the copper unit be shut down because it has been polluting the area.
Chief Minister Palaniswami confirmed that nine people have been killed in police action at Tuticorin while sources say the toll has gone up to 11.
Palaniswami has ordered a judicial inquiry into the violence while also announcing a compensation of Rs 10 lakh and jobs for the next of kin of the deceased. Injured persons would also be given a compensation of Rs 3 lakh each.
The protesters were seen pelting stones and toppling police vehicles after they were prevented from marching towards the Sterlite plant. They even tried to gherao the Collector’s office as well as the plant. Police officials resorted to lathicharge and tear gas to disperse the crowd. As the violence soon went out of control, police opened fire on the protesters leading to several deaths.
About 20,000 people took out a procession towards the district collectorate and the copper plant with the intention of picketing them, demanding for its permanent closure, and resorted to violence, a government statement said.
Some vehicles inside the Collector’s office were also torched by the angry mob. With the situation being extremely tense, police have called for additional reinforcements. Over 2,000 police personnel have been rushed to Tuticorin from nearby districts to bring the situation under control.
"The police had to take action under unavoidable circumstances to protect public life and property as the protesters resorted to repeated violence... police had to control the violence," Palaniswami, who holds the Home portfolio, said.
"I was grieved to know nine persons were unfortunately killed in this incident," he said, and expressed his sympathies and condolences for the families of those killed.
Locals have been protesting for quite some time now against the expansion activities of the Sterlite plant and also demanding the closure of the plant. Protesters have alleged that the plant is polluting ground water in the area.
Police said section 144 of CrPc has been invoked in and around the Sterlite unit to provide security to the unit as per the orders of the Madras High Court.
According to the statement by the Tamil Nadu government, the plant was in operation in Meelavitan in Tuticorin for the past 20 years. Following a gas leak in March 2013 in the plant, the then chief minister, the late J Jayalalithaa ordered its closure, following which the company moved the National Green Tribunal against the state government.
The company later moved an Appellate Authority against this and the next hearing is slated for June 6, it said, adding, the TNPCB counsel had strongly argued against operations in the plant.
The government said it was committed in respecting people's aspirations and was working towards it.
Several political parties hit out at the AIADMK government with opposition DMK saying the state government was responsible for the clash.
Taking to Twitter, DMK's working president MK Stalin said: “AIDMK Government is responsible for the violence in Tuticorin. They never bothered to find a solution to the people’s problem in that area. They were negligent. I strongly condemn the government for not providing adequate security despite knowledge of the protests beforehand. In the wake of these protests, Tamil Nadu government should immediately ensure closure of sterlite plant.”
Congress President Rahul Gandhi called the violence an example of "state sponsored terrorism". He tweeted: "The gunning down by the police of 9 people in the #SterliteProtest in Tamil Nadu, is a brutal example of state sponsored terrorism. These citizens were murdered for protesting against injustice. My thoughts & prayers are with the families of these martyrs and the injured."
The gunning down by the police of 9 people in the #SterliteProtest in Tamil Nadu, is a brutal example of state sponsored terrorism. These citizens were murdered for protesting against injustice. My thoughts & prayers are with the families of these martyrs and the injured. — Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) May 22, 2018
Rajinikanth also condemned the violence and wrote in a tweet, “This government does not respect the sentiments of the people. Its lackadaisical ways have led to the deaths of innocents. The government is responsible for the death of these innocent people.”
Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam has condemned the police firing in Tuticorin. “The peaceful protest by the people of Tuticorin against Sterlite, demanding justice was ignored by the governments. Negligence of the governments is the reason for all the unfortunate incidents. Citizens are not criminals. They are the ones who lose their lives; earlier due to Sterlite and now due to the government’s orders. Everybody should maintain peace,” said party chief Kamal Haasan.
MDMDK Chief Vaiko too condemned the attack on protesters.
Sterlite Copper represents the copper unit of Vedanta Limited which operates a 400,000 tonnes per annum-plant in Tuticorin.
In a statement, the company expressed regret over the day's incidents. "It is with great sorrow and regret that we witnessed today's incidents around the protest at Tuticorin. The company has appealed to the government and authotities to ensure the safety of our employees, facilities and the surrounding community. The Sterlite Copper plant is currently non-operational as we await approval for the Consent to operate," it said.