Vedanta Group’s Sterlite copper smelter unit began operating in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu in 1996 (Newsclick, 2018; Foil Vedanta, 2018). Protests began almost immediately, with hundreds of fishermen blockading the port with their boats in order to prevent the ships carrying copper ore from unloading in March and October of 1996. However, this did not prevent operations. In July 1997, 165 women in a neighboring factory, Ramesh Flowers, fainted because of a toxic gas leak from Sterlite. Some of these women later had miscarriages (Foil Vedanta, 2018).
The plant’s bad effluent management and sulfur dioxide leaks have since plagued nearby villagers for decades (The News Minute, 2018). Sulfur dioxide is a byproduct of smelting and is highly toxic. The plant is located beside the Gulf of Mannar, where toxic waste has decimated fish populations and the livelihood of thousands of fishermen (Foil Vedanta, 2018). As Fathima Babu of the Anti Killer Sterlite People's Movement reported, “There are lot of environmental dangers as well as health dangers, particularly cancer. Almost every house is affected by cancer. Children are most affected. Throat cancer has increased. Eye cancer has also gone up” (The News Minute, 2018). Many were unable to breathe properly. Some suffered skin problems.
On March 23, 2013, a noxious gas leak at the plant caused widespread illness. In response, community members banded together as the Anti-Sterlite People’s Committee to protest Sterlite Industries (India) Limited. Over 5,000 protesters held a strike that shut down the town for several days (Foil Vedanta, 2018). At the time, according to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, a sensor in the smelter’s smokestack showed sulfur dioxide levels were more than double the permitted concentration (Leotaud, Mining.com, 2018). This resulted in a temporary shutdown of operations at the plant. However, the Supreme Court of India eventually permitted the plant to restart operations after paying a fine of INR 100 crore (~15 million USD at the time), to compensate for polluting the surrounding land and water sources it has caused since 1997, and for running the smelter without various environmental clearances for years (Leotaud, Mining.com, 2018; Foil Vedanta, 2018).
In September 2017, the National Green Tribunal found the Sterlite plant responsible for dumping copper slag in the Upper Odai River, blocking waterflow. The judgment also revealed that the plant operated without authorisation under the Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008, between 2013 and 2017 and ordered the company to compensate the affected villagers for the pollution it had caused (Newsclick, 2018).
In 2018, the announcement for the plant’s expansion doubling the smelter’s operation capacity from 400kt to 800kt pa within two years drew public anger (Newsclick, 2018). In corporate statements, Vedanta-Sterlite stated that this expansion would make the Tuticorin smelter “one of the world’s largest single-location copper smelting complexes” (Leotaud, 2018). While villagers initually petitioned the district collector several times asking to shut down the unit in February, they did not get a response. Consequently, an initial 250 residents called for an indefinite dharna (protest) and hunger strike on February 12, 2018 (The Indian Express, 2018). Eventually, over 500 people, including many women and schoolchildren, blocked the company gates until they were rounded up and arrested on February 14.
On March 24, 2018, the movement escalated with over 15,000 participants demanding not only the halt of any further expansion of the project, but also calling for a shutdown of existing operations (The News Minute, 2018; Newsclick, 2018; Foil Vedanta, 2018; Scroll.in., 2018; The Hindu, 2018). Alleging pollution of air, water and soil, the protesters said the plant should not be allowed to expand its operations. Women and children of the village squatted under a tree with a black board demanding the closure of the plant. Black flags were put up in some houses in the village, making their view of the copper smelter unit clear (The Hindu, 2018). Shanthi, a young mother, said, "The factory has caused enough damage to the environment. It's proven in court. The government should not renew its licence after the 25 year period" (Stalin, 2018). Meanwhile, a number of Tamil people held a protest outside the home of Vedanta Group chief Anil Agarwal in Mayfair, London, in solidarity with the protesters in Tamil Nadu. The protest in London was organised by Foil Vedanta, Tamil People in UK and Parai - Voice of Freedom (Newsclick, 2018; Foil Vedanta, 2018). British Tamils armed with traditional Parai drums shouted slogans, “Kekudha Kekudha, Tamizhar kural kekudha?” (Can you hear? Can you hear? the voice of the Tamils?)” on the streets of London (Foil Vedanta, 2018; Sekhar, 2018). The protest is ongoing (The Hindu, 2018).
On March 26, 2018, the political party DMK asked the Tamil Nadu government to order Sterlite Industries to shut down its unit. The party's working president M K Stalin urged the government to protect the people in the district from the pollution caused by the company's copper smelter plant. In a statement, he said, "Sterlite Industries is polluting the Thamirabarani river as well as soil, making it difficult for the farmers to cultivate crops. The DMK will support the protests of the local people against the company" (3).
On May 22, 2018, protesters held a ralley commemorating the 100th day of demonstrations. However, the police opened fire on them, killing 12 and injuring many more. One of the victims was 17-year-old Snowlin Vinista, a high school student and aspiring lawyer who protested and outspokenly advocated against the plant because its pollution gave many of her friends and family members cancer. Snowlin was shot dead by policemen in plainclothes with a bullet piercing through the back of her neck, damaging parts of her upper spinal cord and exiting through her mouth. The crime has yet to be resolved in court. Snowlin’s mother Vanitha has since been organizing anti-Sterlite protesters but faces repression, surveillance, and threats for her activism (9).
The following day, another person died from being hit by a rubber bullet, taking the death toll up to 13. The government of Tamil Nadu then asked for a definitive closure of the plant; while welcoming the order, protestors said they need a cabinet decision on this or the company will move court to get a stay. (6). This massacre became world news (4, 5, 7, 8). Soon after the shooting, the government announced a solatium of Rs 20 lakh to the families of the deceased and a government cooking job for 25-year-old M. Vijayakumar, who had been shot in the thigh and is now disabled. However, the compensation, which people had no choice but to accept, was unfair, upsetting community members (9, 10).
In the aftermath of the massacre, worldwide petitioning forced Sterlite to close for the next few years. However, in 2021, lobbyists began campaigning to reopen the plant with better environmental controls to meet increased demand from rising prices and import costs (11). Since then, protests have been ongoing day and night, especially in the villages surrounding the plant that were worst affected, such as the Kumarattiyapuram village. The conflict continues, as of Feb 2021.