OPINION | Thoothukudi Violence Nothing New for 'Trigger-Happy Police' in Tamil Nadu

File photo: Police personnel lathi charge a protester demanding the closure of Sterlite Copper unit in Tuticorin on May 2018. (PTI)

File photo: Police personnel lathi charge a protester demanding the closure of Sterlite Copper unit in Tuticorin on May 2018. (PTI)

This essay is about six places, including Thoothukudi, where the syndrome is in play. In all six places, the Pollution Control Board and the Union Environment Ministry cooked up documents and perverted the law to thwart citizen complaints.

Nityanand Jayaraman
  • Last Updated: June 1, 2018, 11:30 AM IST
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May 22 was merely a punctuation – albeit a painful one -- in the 22-year long struggle of Thoothukudi. The struggle in Thoothukudi continues despite, or perhaps, in response to the closure order by Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. This and the Government of Tamil Nadu's subsequent order endorsing TNPCB's order are weakly drafted and designed to fail on judicial review.

The Thoothukudi police violence should not be seen in isolation as incidents that happened on May 22 and 23. Neither should the story be too firmly rooted in Thoothukudi as a location, or with Sterlite as the villain of the masterpiece. The Thoothukudi Syndrome is playing out at various locations across Tamil Nadu, where state and central governments are pushing corporate agendas with no regard for law or public sentiment, and using police muscle, inducements and false assurances to contain dissent.

This essay is about six places, including Thoothukudi, where the syndrome is in play. In all six places, the Pollution Control Board and the Union Environment Ministry that are required to enforce the law, are not only ignoring violations, but actively misrepresenting compliance, cooking up documents and perverting the law to thwart citizen complaints. In all places, the answer to people's environmental questions are met either with a stony silence or the police baton.

The Thoothukudi script and its key actors are evident in all these places – TNPCB and the Union Environment Ministry solidly in the grip of vested interests; an unresponsive district administration; a trigger-happy police force and a restive citizenry.

But first, Thoothukudi

On 28 May, 2018, the Government of Tamil Nadu issued an order endorsing the rejection of Sterlite's license renewal request by the TNPCB. This order and TNPCB's rejectionare both weak in law and devoid of substantial technical arguments. These orders mark the latest in a long list of betrayals by the state where closure orders are issued as a temporary salve to soothe angry residents. They are drafted weakly to allow the government's corporate masters to return to business as usual.

There are substantial illegalities that the Government could have cited, including evidence of contamination, the several under-designed features, or even more serious illegalities such as land fraud. For instance, the company got its Environment Clearance (EC) in 2007 for expanding production from 900 tonnes/day (tpd) to 1200 tpd by declaring that it had 172.17 ha for the project. That was a lie. It had only 102.4 ha and still has only 102.4 ha. Less land means less space for accommodating pollution mitigation infrastructure such as greenbelt and waste storage yards. The Ministry of Environment, which issued the EC knows about the land fraud, but will do nothing about it.

The people of Thoothukudi are fighting not just against Sterlite's pollution but also against the rot that has taken root in our democratic governance.

If Thoothukudi and Sterlite are the cases in point, then this rot is characterised by – Sterlite's ability to violate laws with impunity, and even have it interpreted to its advantage; pliant regulators at the state, the centre and the district level that extend illegal concessions and exemptions from legal obligations to big players like Sterlite; the double standards practised by regulators and courts in dealing with crimes committed by offenders like Sterlite.

Rotten democracies distinguish between offenders – the common ones are punished, and the eminent offenders enjoy a special status. In April 2013, after finding Sterlite guilty of pollution, violation of laws, misrepresentation of facts and unlicensed operation, even the Supreme Court allowed the company to resume operations after paying a pathetically paltry sum as penalty.

As an eminent offender, Sterlite has been allowed to pollute, operate without license, construct entire factory complexes without prior permission, secure licenses on the basis of false representations, and operate an under-designed factory. Needless to say, all these concessions allow Sterlite to run the lowest-cost factory of copper in the world.

The blatant violation, and the government's collusion has harmed the health and hurt the pride of local people.

Kamarajar Port's Encroachment in Ennore Creek

The 8000 acre tidal wetlands of Ennore Creek in North Chennai are the lifeline for the region's fisherfolk. But for the Government of India-owned Kamarajar Port, the creek is prime industrial real estate that somehow got buried under water. The sprawling backwaters are also an important buffer protecting inland communities from flooding due to heavy rainfall or tidal surges during cyclonic weather. Already more than 1200 acres of the wetlands have been lost to power plants, coal stacking yards, coal ash dumps, roads and other industrial projects. The destruction of the Creek has the blessings of the governments of India and Tamil Nadu, the Thiruvallur district administration, the state Coastal Zone Management Authority and the TNPCB.

Now, Kamarajar Port wants to eat into an additional 1000 acres of wetlands to build car parking terminals, coal stack yards and warehouse zones. Done in the name of the Sagarmala scheme, the Port's plans will obliterate biologically productive tidal mud flats, salt pans and mangroves, and expose Chennai residents to heightened risk of disastrous flooding. Repeated representations and non-violent direct actions by fisherfolk and Chennai residents have had no impact on the regulators.

Kamarajar Port's dreams cannot be fulfilled without silencing the region's fisherfolk and Chennai residents who stand to be flooded.

Hydrocarbon in Cauvery Delta

ONGC – a central PSU engaged in hydrocarbon exploration and extraction – claims to operate 183 hydrocarbon extraction wells in the fertile delta districts of Tamil Nadu. For nearly a decade now, the delta districts have been agitated and opposed to plans for large scale hydrocarbon extraction – including by fracking – by ONGC and other private players. Things came to a head in February 2017 after massive protests broke out in Neduvasal village of Pudukottai district within days of the Centre's award of a 10 square kilometre block in the village to a private party for hydrocarbon extraction.

The protests were prompted by ONGC's worrisome track record of environmental pollution and safety in the region, and farmers' anxiety on the impacts of hydrocarbon extraction on groundwater and farm productivity. Over the last year, the protests have intensified and spread to other parts of the delta.

Right to Information responses from the TNPCB reveal that that not one of the wells that ONGC claimed to be operating in the delta has a valid license to operate. The wells that are being drilled too do not have the statutory clearances.

In Nannilam, Thiruvarur district, ONGC began drilling a well without obtaining prior environment clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment, or mandatory licenses under Air and Water Acts from the TNPCB. When people protested, and a few youth with legal education raised questions about the unlicensed drilling at a “peace committee” meeting organised by the district administration and police, ONGC promised to return with responses. No responses followed. A few days later the young men that asked the questions were picked up by the police and jailed.

Nuclear Plant in Koodankulam

One of the most sustained, grassroots struggles for environmental justice, the non-violent Koodankulam protests of 2011-2012 saw the state and central governments joining hands to intimidate, defame and criminalise the protestors.

By January 2012, when the state police staged their first orgy of violence outside the fishing village of Idinthakarai, the state and central governments had invoked all the familiar bogeymen to discredit the struggle. The protesting villagers were condescendingly referred to as “innocent people” being misled by anti-nationals, anti-science agents, foreign-funded, NGO-backed, anti-development, catholic conspirators.

More than 200 cases were filed against more than 100,000 people, mostly unnamed. At least 20 cases of sedition and a similar number of cases charging nearly 8000 people with waging war against the state were filed from a police station that seldom witnessed any crimes other than the occasional theft or drunken brawl.

In the Supreme Court, it was revealed that among other things, the project proponent National Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) had constructed breakwaters, water intake pipelines, desalination plants and water outfalls in the most productive fishing grounds without getting the mandatory prior environmental clearance under Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 1991. These breakwaters had not just harmed fisher livelihoods but also triggered dangerous shoreline erosion on Idinthakarai's beach.

No action was taken against the offender; rather, the Supreme Court remedied the situation by helping NPCIL obtain a prior environmental clearance post-facto. The Court then permitted the company to commission the nuclear reactor in compliance with certain conditions, including that the company should construct an Away From Reactor facility for storage of high-level radioactive wastes within 5 years of commissioning. Given the proximity of the reactor complex to densely populated towns, including Nagercoil, storing the wastes within the facility is a bad and dangerous practice.

After assuring the court that it will do so, NPCIL has now declared that it needs 5 more years to construct the AFR. In the meantime, spent fuel will have to be densely packed in the reactor pools within this complex. This practice is fraught with heightened risks of fires and radiation leaks. In the event of an accident, the fact that the practice has the approval of the Supreme Court will offer no protection to people from radiation harm.

Ingoring local anxieties and demands, and the non-compliance of the existing units with mandatory safety protocols, the Government of India has proposed and the state government has agreed to allow NPCIL to set up four more reactors within the same complex.

International Container Terminal in Kanyakumari

Fisherfolk in Kanyakumari are fighting against a proposed international Container port that they say will harm the local environment, agriculture and fisheries. After being rejected by fisherfolk at Enayam, also in Kanyakumari, the Government of India's Sagarmala project was summarily moved to a 2.5 km picturesque beach between the tourist town of Kanyakumari and the ecologically sensitive mangrove-studded estuary of Keezh Manakkudy.

Local villagers have highlighted the illegality of the project. As per the Government of India-approved Coastal Zone Management Plan of 1996, this coastal stretch is classified as CRZ 1 – i.e. Ecologically Sensitive Area where no development is permitted. The District Collector, who also heads the District Coastal Zone Management Authority, should know this and has anyway been put on notice by the people. But rather than uphold the law, the Collector is facilitating the project. Meanwhile, right wing forces have begun to communalise the issue in an attempt to drive a wedge between the farmers and fisherfolk on caste and communal lines.

The Unending Saga of Unilever's Mercury Pollution

In 2001, citizen action led to the shut down of a polluting mercury thermometer factory operated by Anglodutch multinational Unilever. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can damage the brain and kidneys. After 15 years of campaigning for compensation of injured workers and clean-up of the polluted environment, a rap song – Kodaikanal Won't – that went viral helped address half the problem. The campaign was able to win a dignified settlement for more than 590 workers' families. But like in Bhopal with the Union Carbide site, the problem of environmental remediation is nowhere near resolution.

Consistent with its policy of protecting corporate interests over public, the TNPCB is trying to help Unilever get away with a sub-standard environmental remediation process that is likely to mobilise far more mercury into the environment than it will recover.

The Government of India's guidelines for clean-up of soil mercury contamination suggest that soils should be cleaned up to a point where there is no more than 6.6 mg of mercury per kilogram of soil. But TNPCB and the Central Pollution Control Board are prepared to exempt Unilever from this requirement. Unilever has been allowed to clean-up to a lax standard of 20 mg/kg of soil.

The United Kingdom, where Unilever is headquartered, prescribes a guideline value of 1 mg/kg of mercury in soils of residential areas.

Corporate double-standards, such as these, are only possible in jurisdictions where regulatory officials too subscribe to such discriminatory standards, where the rot in governance justifies environmental racism as a worthwhile collateral in the pursuit of industrialisation.

(Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and social activist. Views are personal)

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