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Sterlite copper smelter unit, Tamil Nadu, India


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,, 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,, 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;, 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.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Sterlite copper smelter unit, Tamil Nadu, India
State or province:Tamil Nadu
Location of conflict:Tuticorin
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Chemical industries
Metal refineries
Specific commodities:Electricity
Chemical products

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Vedanta's project encompasses a 400 ktpa brown field copper smelter and 160 MW (2x 80 MW) captive power plant. It is India’s largest copper producer, with 400,000 tonnes of annual production capacity, supplying 45 per cent of the country’s needs (2). The plant has faced legal battles over ecology issues and has since earmarked about Rs 450 crore for environmental protection.

In 2015, the company had reported that Sterlite Copper, part of the $12.9-billion Vedanta group, was set for a Rs 3,300-crore expansion at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu. P Ramnath, chief executive officer of Sterlite Copper, said after the expansion, the plant would be Asia’s largest copper manufacturing facility at a single location. Plans are currently suspended in the aftermath of the May 22 massacre.

Level of Investment for the conflictive project600,000,000
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:15,000
Start of the conflict:1996
Company names or state enterprises:Sterlite Industries Ltd. from India
Vedanta from United Kingdom
Relevant government actors:Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board , District Collector, Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) and the chairperson of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee.
National Green Tribunal
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:-‘Anti-Sterlite People’s Committee’, Contacts at
- Anti-Killer Sterlite People's Movement
-Foil Vedanta
- Tamil People in UK and Parai - Voice of Freedom

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Hunger strikes and self immolation
General strike in 2018.


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Other Environmental impacts, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Other Environmental impactsPollution with sulphur dioxide.
Health ImpactsVisible: Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts
Potential: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Deaths
Other Health impactsRespiratory illnesses. Alleged increased cancer rates.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Violations of human rights, Increase in violence and crime, Militarization and increased police presence
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:New legislation
Under negotiation
On April 2, 2013, the Supreme Court of India asked Sterlite Industries to pay Rs 100 crore as compensation for polluting the environment. The Supreme court has also directed that the amount is to be paid over three months from that day to the District Collector of Tuticorin. The situation is bound to change after the massacre of 22 May 2018.
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Project temporarily suspended
Criminalization of activists
Violent targeting of activists
Proposal and development of alternatives:In 2013, it was reported that a team of experts from IIT Madras and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board officials have begun inspecting the copper smelter unit of Sterlite Industries on a direction from the National Green Tribunal following an alleged noxious leak last month, causing health problems among locals. However, later on and until 2018 the smelter operated, and the current protest (2018) is caused by the plans of expansion.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:After the massacre on May 22, 2018, the plant was temporarily closed down, but the outcome is still uncertain in light of recent lobbying for its reopening.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Year Ended 31 March 2013

The Anti-Sterlite Peoples Struggle Committee released a booklet titled 'Doctors Speak Out'

The Wire. The Story Behind The Anti-Sterlite Protest. A backgrounder about the unit and its parent company Vedanta Resources and the how the plant breached human and environmental rights.

(5) Le Monde, Les conflits environnementaux se multiplient en Inde

Treize manifestants ont été tués par la police à Tuticorin, dans le sud du pays. Ils protestaient contre la réouverture et l’extension d’une fonderie de cuivre accusée de polluer l’air et les nappes phréatiques.

LE MONDE | 26.05.2018| Par Julien Bouissou

Anti-Sterlite group demands Tuticorin plant closure

Members of anti-Sterlite panel to demand permanent closure of the Copper smelter plant

IIT, pollution control board team begins inspection of Sterlite unit

The Indian Express, 26th March, 2018. 'Ban Sterlite': Thousands of protesters hit the streets demanding closure of copper plant in Thoothukudi.

(7)VIDEO: Policía india usa rifles de asalto para dispersar protestas que dejan ya más de diez muertos . 24 may 2018. Las manifestaciones contra una planta minera a la que acusan de contaminar el aire y las fuentes de agua locales tienen lugar en una ciudad al sur la India .

(1)Vedanta-Sterlite – Dangerous by Design: Nityanand Jayaraman

(2) Business Standard. Sterlite Copper to invest Rs 3,300 crore in Tamil Nadu. CEO P Ramnath said after the expansion, Tuticorin plant will be Asia's largest copper manufacturing facility at a single location. T E Narasimhan | Chennai , March 17, 2015

(6) Business Standard, Blow for Vedanta as Tamil Nadu orders permanent closure of Sterlite factory . While welcoming the order, protestors said they need cabinet decision on this or company will move court to get a stay. T E Narasimhan | Chennai , May 28, 2018

(9) The News Minute. Remember Thoothukudi: My fight for justice is under surveillance, says Snowlin's mother (Rao 2019)

(10) The Wire. 'They Were Meant to Protect Us. Instead They Killed Us': Thoothukudi Prepares to Vote (Muralidharan 2019)

The News Minute, March 24th, 2018. Thousands Come Out to Protest Sterlite Copper Plant in Thoothukudi.

(11) Money Control. Sterlite Copper plant in Tamil Nadu is back in the spotlight (Jagannathan 2021)

The Hindu. 26th March, 2018. Thoothukudi villagers continue protest against Sterlite plant expansion., 25th March, 2018. Tamil Nadu: Thousands protest against Sterlite Copper’s plan to expand its plant in Thoothukudi.

(8) The Independent, 23 May 2018

Leotaud, V. R., 24th March, 2018. Protests in India against Vedanta's copper smelter.

(4) Why Sterlite-like protests are inevitable in India. More often than not, the State fails to implement environmental laws and use funds meant for affected communities effectively

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Interview In Hindi

Interview In Hindi

Newsclick. 26th March, 2018. Thousands Unite Against Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper Plant In TN’s Thoothukudi.

Foil Vedanta. 24th March, 2018. London and Tuticorin mass rally to ban Sterlite.

Stalin, J. S. D., 25th March, 2018. Thousands Protest In Tamil Nadu's Tuticorin Against Sterlite Copper Plant. NDTV.

Livemint, 27 March 2018. Tamil Nadu: Protests against copper plant in Thoothukudi intensify. As traders’ associations join the stir demanding the closure of a copper smelting factory, shops remain closed in Thoothukudi in a 24-hour shutdown.

Sekhar, A. 25th March, 2018. 'Can you hear the voice of Tamils?’: Sterlite protests outside Vedanta founder’s house in UK. The News Minute.

(3) Sterlite polluting Thamirabarani river shut it down: Stalin. Mar 27, 2018.

Other comments:One of the most engaged social activist and part of the Anti-Sterlite People Struggle Committee is the journalist Nityanand Jayaraman.

Meta information

Contributor:Swapan Kumar Patra & Arpita Bisht & JMA
Last update14/02/2022
Conflict ID:906




Source: N. Rajesh (The Hindu)





Thousands gather on the streets of Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu to protest against the Sterlite copper plant for allegedly causing pollution. March 2018. Photo by Saisen/ Mint