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Protesters in India Are Massacred as Environmentally Destructive Corporations Have Impunity

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Police in India killed a dozen protesters in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, after 100 days of demonstrations against the mining corporation Sterlite. Journalist Kavitha Muralidharan tells TRNN’s Ben Norton how UK-based Indian parent company Vedanta Resources enjoys impunity, despite its role in environmental destruction, pollution, and violence like the Thoothukudi massacre

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BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.

India has been rocked by scandals in recent weeks after workers protesting an environmentally destructive mining corporation were massacred by police. People in the city of Toothukudi could, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, held a protest for months, demanding the closure of an environmentally destructive copper smelting plant run by the metal company Sterlite, which is owned by the UK-based megacorporation Vedanta Resources. Residents of villages nearby stressed that the facility was polluting their environment, leading to increased rates of cancer, breathing problems, and other public health concerns.

On May 22, the one hundredth day of the protest, police responded with extreme violence, shooting at the unarmed demonstrators. Thirteen protesters were killed, and others were injured in the massacre. Politicians from some local parties and activists accused the police of planning to shoot and kill the protesters in an attempt to crush the months-long demonstration. In response to the massive scandal that ensued, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state ordered the plant to be closed. Residents and environmental groups, which had campaigned for 22 years to close the facility, celebrated this as an important victory.

Joining us to discuss this story is Kavitha Muralidharan. Kavitha is a journalist who has been reporting from on the ground recently in the city of Toothukudi, and in Tamil Nadu. She recently published an article at the website The Wire, titled “Sterlite protest speculation rife that police firing was preplanned.” Thanks for joining us, Kavitha.

KAVITHA MURALIDHARAN: Thank you.

BEN NORTON: So can you talk a bit about Sterlite, and about these protests, and what you saw when you reported on the ground in Toothukuri?

KAVITHA MURALIDHARAN: Sterlite was operating from the coastal town of Toothukuri, it’s a coastal town basically in southern Tamil Nadu, since 1996. Prior to [inaudible] Sterlite was initially supposed to be set up in Ratnagiri, near Maharashtra, in Maharashtra. There was an outbreak of public protest, and they eventually had to shift to Toothukuri. In Toothukuri they could somehow convince the government to give them all kinds of licenses, and they started their operations in 1996.

But since 1996 there have been protests against the Sterlite corporation. One very remarkable thing happened in 1996. The country fishermen in Toothukuri, they laid siege to a ship that was carrying ore from Australia to Toothukuri. [inaudible] So they have laid a siege, and it was such a big thing back in 1996, but it’s been not so well reported, because of lack of social media and other such things. But this has happened. The protest has always been there. It’s not just, it’s not that people have started protesting just now. It’s always been there.

So when I went there, I found that, one, I was [inaudible] that the police firing was planned, the police had intended to kill the protesters. And two, one cannot really establish a connection between the rising incidence of cancer and the pollution caused by an industry like Sterlite. The incidence of cancer has been rising in one small place, in one small village. At least six people have died in the month of April. And it’s kind of created a fear in the minds of people. They’ve started thinking that the pollution is the reason for the cancer. And there’s nothing has happened from the side of the government or from the side of Sterlite to allay the fears of people. That is a very important thing that I saw on the ground. People have all kinds of fears, but no step has been taken to allay these fears. This was very important. And no cohort study has been done on what kind of pollution is happening in Toothukuri. It was one of the most polluted towns in the Tamil Nadu. But there has been no study to establish what is happening there.

BEN NORTON: And can you talk specifically about the events on May 22? The killing of a dozen protesters who had been protesting for a hundred days. And specifically, you mentioned that, of course it’s hard to tell, but there are accusations that the police may have even been in collusion with the company to crush the protest. What does that say about the role of police?

KAVITHA MURALIDHARAN: See, the protest has, this particular protest has been happening for a hundred days. And for all the hundred days, no representative from the government [inaudible] to meet the protesting people, or to have a dialogue with them, which itself is very disappointing. And everything was planned on March 24. In March they announced that they are going to observe the hundredth day of protest by taking up the rally towards the district [inaudible], demanding that the [inaudible], who was technically the head of the town, the administrative head of the town, to meet them and receive a memorandum. It’s just to present the memorandum to the [inaudible] demanding that Sterlite be closed. So everything has been planned, everything was prepared.

But in fact what happened was on May 20, May 17 deadline goes to the High Court of Madras branch in [inaudible] demanding that 144 of, be imposed, 144 is a section there, [inaudible] curfew. And any kind of crowd, anybody, any assembly of over four persons is prohibited. So Sterlite demands that, which is really unusual for a corporate company to do it, and for a court to entertain it. So Sterlite demands it on, based on that. And on May 20, the high court delivers a judgment directing the local administration to consider the plea of Sterlite. Itself I think is very strange, on May 22 evening, 144 is imposed, which means that the [inaudible] is under curfew. But there is no procedure to kind of let people know that 144 is in place, which means you’ll have to all of a sudden relay this to Toothukuri. So will have to go to the village and announce it over a microphone. This did not happen. A few people knew because it was challenged, and they read the papers the next day. But otherwise there was no proper effort from the state, the administration side, to convey to the people that 144 was in place. So people there had no idea that the procession should not happen, according to law.

So they took up the procession, and it was massive. The numbers would be between 20000 to 50000, that’s what I’m hearing. So it was such a massive protest, and I’ve met the women that would walk ten kilometers towards the [inaudible] from her place. So horrible. She was assaulted, she beaten up with the police, and the back of the guns by the policemen, and she’s bleeding till later. So all these violations have taken place. It’s very clear the police had [colluded] with Sterlite to put an end to this march, to stop this protest. And OK, people also, the Sterlite also accuses the protesters of hurling petrol bombs towards the headquarters. But the fac remains that 13 of the protesters were killed. But on the other side there were a few cars that were damaged, nothing more than that. So it’s very clear for everybody to see.

BEN NORTON: Can you talk a bit more about what Sterlite is? Sterlite, as a company, is based in India, but its parent company Vedanta is actually based in London in the UK, and Vedanta is owned by the Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal. Can you talk about can you talk about this billionaire, and about Vedanta?

KAVITHA MURALIDHARAN: Vedanta, as I already said, it’s been trying to establish its roots across Tamil Nadu, and across India. There is one problem. Everywhere [inaudible] for example, Vedanta had established a mining company, and protests are still happening [inaudible]. People, still they’ve had to shift to Toothukuri, because people in [inaudible] are opposed to it setting up. OK, one argument that keeps coming up is Toothukuri has many other polluting industries, too. But Vedanta, as you rightly have pointed out, is based out of London, which means it’s a huge, huge corporate company. And we have a minister, we have a central minister saying on record that Vedanta have tried to bribe him, which means Vedanta is doing everything in its limits to keep this going. Even now, after this massive shooting, that 13 people have been killed, which is unheard of, in around [inaudible] in Tamil Nadu. This is unheard of, but Anil Agarwal still keeps saying that he will do everything within his limits to keep Sterlite going.

So this, I think, is very-. I mean, it’s, it’s very indifferent from the sufferings of the people, is a stunning defeat to what they, what their demands are. Plus I can see, when I went there that I can see that people are really worried that the incidence of cancer is rising. There was a five year old kid that was affected by cancer. OK. Even assuming that Sterlite might not be responsible, as argued by some people, I think it’s the responsibility of the government to ensure that people’s fears are allayed. But these people, they are supporting, they come from a ready lower state of the society, and nobody thinks it’s important to hear their voices. I think that’s where the local administration, and the state government, and the central government go completely wrong.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and then, finally, this is far from Vedanta’s first controversy. The company, which as we discussed, is based in London, the company has been charged with dumping toxic waste in communities in India. It’s also been charged with displacing indigenous groups, and many other scandals. Can you talk about the fact that there is this kind of corporate impunity? And this is not by any stretch of the imagination the first time that this company has seen such scandals.

KAVITHA MURALIDHARAN: Even in Toothukuri there’s lots of things happening. TNPCB, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, is on the record saying that water is being polluted because of the Sterlite company there. So there are so many data available about how Sterlite is actually polluting the locality in Toothukuri, how it’s indulging in all kinds of violations. And there have been deaths inside the Sterlite company. Inside, the people, workers, have died. Ended up-, records for workers having died. So this is happening in Toothukuri. Sterlite has been beyond all the acceptible standards in all, in all, I mean, it’s been, all the permissible, it’s bypassed all the permissible levels. So that has been huge violations in every possible sector.

And Sterlite has been manipulating with data. Kind of, it’s kind of talking to the high level people that are up able to think to get a license. But I think the most important thing is Sterlite is closed now, but nobody knows for how long. But if it’s closed, it’s only because of 13 lives have gone. Otherwise I think Sterlite would have managed to continue to exist in Toothukuri itself, despite the huge protest.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and then concluding here, we were speaking mostly about Vedanta’s work and corporate pollution inside Tamil Nadu, but I’m wondering if we could take a step back briefly, and could you talk maybe about the situation nationally? Do you think that there is a similar atmosphere of corporate impunity under the BJP government? That is, the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Do you think that corporations throughout the country have been given this kind of carte blanche and this leeway to pollute the environment, and to, you know, hurt civilians without any checks and balances?

KAVITHA MURALIDHARAN: Yeah, I think so, basically because Vedanta is also a huge donor for the BJP and for the [inaudible]. But yes, everywhere the BJP, the central government, is refusing to hear, to listen to people’s voices. It happened in court and [Tamil Nadu]. Against the wishes of people, the government, the central government, is undertaking the expansion of a nuclear plant. And despite the protests, protests went on for three or four years, it’s happening. And everywhere else, I think this is happening across India. I mean, I don’t have much data about the country. I have some data about Tamil Nadu. But in Tamil Nadu it’s definitely happening, and the government intends to set up and new observatory, laboratory, in southern Tamil Nadu, somewhere close to Toothukuri in [inaudible] district.

So people, locals are opposing it. There has been no attempt to educate the people what it really is. Instead, the government, the central government particularly thinks it’s OK to go ahead with all these kind of projects without the consent of the people, which I think is really dangerous, which is colliding with the corporate, the goal, the corporate way.

BEN NORTON: We’l have to end our conversation there. I was joined by Kavitha Muralidharan. Kavitha is a journalist in southern India in Tamil Nadu, and she was recently reporting from on the ground in the city of Toothukuri, where protesters were massacred by police after protesting for months against a copper facility, a copper plant. Thanks so much for joining us.

KAVITHA MURALIDHARAN: Thank you.