Poisoned City

A London-based mining company polluted an Indian port city for decades before a mass-shooting forced its smelter to shut down. Local activists like Fatima Babu are fighting to keep it closed.

ON MARCH 23, 2013, at about 6:30 a.m., Fatima Babu rushed outside and sniffed the air. She’d been asleep at home in Thoothukudi, a small port city in the state of Tamil Nadu near India’s southern tip, when she was roused by her ringing phone. Getting a call before 7 a.m. was especially early for Babu, 61 at the time, since she usually stays up until the stars begin to fade in the morning light. She tried to ignore the ringing, but the caller kept redialing. When she finally answered, the frantic voice on the other end shouted something about gas washing over the town and sent Babu running to her terrace. At first, she noticed nothing. Then, as her eyes started to sting, she saw that half her plants had turned the color of ash.

Babu wrapped a wet cloth around her mouth and nose and went out to learn what she could, though she already suspected the likely culprit — a sulfur dioxide leak from the nearby copper smelter that had been polluting her city for 17 years. Morning walkers were stumbling around, gasping for breath. Some were throwing up in the streets. Half the city looked as though an arsonist had set fire to flowers, trees, and vegetable patches but made sure homes went untouched.

Like most information about the damage the smelter has done, details remained just out of reach.

Later that day, Babu visited a hospital and spied a man with a bloated body, shuddering in his bed. Doctors forced her away, but the man’s neighbor later told her that he didn’t make it. Babu heard about others who died that day, too, but could never confirm the news. Like most information about the damage the smelter has done, details remained just out of reach.

AN ENGLISH teacher-turned-activist who’s lived in Thoothukudi all her life, Babu had for years been at the front of a growing movement among the city’s fishing and farming communities to shut the smelter down. The plant had leaked several times before, but the movement against it hadn’t caught on with the larger population of the port city, especially in its relatively wealthier business and trading communities.

The March 2013 incident changed that dynamic. Irate residents across social and political lines began demanding permanent closure of the factory. About a thousand of them went on a hunger strike, and sudden media attention gave new weight to a years-old Indian Supreme Court case that sought to shut down the plant for violating environmental regulations.

Through all this, the company — Sterlite Copper — denied that there had been a leak, though the plant’s own measuring equipment recorded sulfur dioxide levels that day at close to three times what is allowed. Then, as had become the norm, the plant was allowed to reopen after a closure that lasted less than three months. The Supreme Court agreed that Sterlite had violated all manner of environmental protections, but it allowed the smelter to keep running after levying a $17 million fine, saying the company “contributes substantially” to India’s copper needs. (Until it was shut down in 2018, Sterlite supplied about 40 percent of India’s growing annual copper demand.)

But the incident had already sparked a mass movement that swelled until it culminated in tragedy five years later, after a decision by the state government to allow the plant to double its production capacity. Between May 22 and 23, 2018, during citywide demonstrations against that decision, Tamil Nadu state police shot and killed 14 citizens and injured many more. “The extent of the damage, the extent of the ruthlessness, callousness, was high with Sterlite,” Babu says. “It’s basically an attitude of ‘We don’t care for values… We do what we want because we have money, we have political clout.’”

The shootings were the biggest single attack against land and environmental defenders in 2018.

According to Global Witness, an environmental justice organization based in London, the shootings were the biggest single attack against land and environmental defenders in 2018, part of a trend that has seen India become much more dangerous for such activists since Prime Minister Narendra Modi first took office in 2014. The incident drew worldwide criticism and finally pushed the state government to do what protesters had long demanded — shut the plant down for good. Sterlite’s appeal of the closure is currently pending in India’s Supreme Court.

The massacre made international headlines, but not much global attention has been given to Babu and Thoothukudi’s more than two decades-long struggle against Sterlite, even though the company is a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources — a London-based metals and mining conglomerate with a record of legal, human rights, and environmental abuses.

In 2010, the company was barred from mining bauxite in the Indian state of Odisha after its attempts to evict the Indigenous Dongria Kondh community from their traditional land provoked international outcry. In 2019, a group of over 1,800 Zambian villagers won the right to sue Vedanta Resources in British court for polluting their water and destroying their livelihoods through its copper mining operations there.

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Billionaire Anil Agarwal, whose family owns the conglomerate (which posted a net income of $1.476 billion last fiscal year), consistently denies his company has done anything wrong. After the Thoothukudi massacre, he tweeted that “certain vested interests” wanted “India to remain import dependent.” This past April, as the second, deadlier wave of Covid-19 swept through India, the Supreme Court allowed Sterlite to reopen solely to produce oxygen for Covid-19 patients. Residents now fear that this “soft opening” is a ploy to restart the smelter.

THOOTHUKUDI rests on the Gulf of Mannar, a shallow bay in the Indian Ocean that stretches between India and Sri Lanka and was declared an internationally protected biosphere reserve in 2001. Its three coastal ecosystems — mangrove, seagrass, and coral reef — are home to more than 4,000 species of plants and animals, making it one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Dugongs and olive ridley turtles munch on the gulf’s seagrasses, and its coral reefs flash with the neon oranges, blues, and yellows of thousands of tropical fish. Tuna, pomfret, sardines, and other marine animals along the coast provide food and income for Thoothukudi’s fishing communities.

State regulations are supposed to stop companies such as Sterlite from building a copper smelter within 25 kilometers of the gulf, but the Tamil Nadu government let it put it up just 14 kilometers offshore even after three other coastal states — Goa, Gujarat, and Maharashtra — rejected it on environmental grounds. Sterlite was also supposed to surround its facility with 250 meters of greenery, but the state decided that 25 meters of shrubs and trees would do, though the company didn’t bother with that, either.

More than 460,000 people live within roughly ten kilometers of the plant, which was allowed to bypass all sorts of regulations on the promise that the smelter would lift the state into a prosperous new India that was just opening its economy to the world. Many in Thoothukudi were glad for a chance to rise with the tide.

The Gulf of Mannar, a shallow bay in the Indian Ocean that stretches between India and Sri Lanka, is an internationally protected biosphere reserve that is home to more than 4,000 species of plants and animals. Photo by Deepak2017ind / Wikimedia Commons

Thoothukudi’s large fishing community, which depends of the gulf’s rich marine life, was among the first to oppose the copper smelter. Photo by Thom Pierce / Global Witness / The Guardian / UNEP.

It’s possible that the Sterlite executives who chose Thoothukudi never considered the fisherfolk who relied on the gulf, but those communities were forced to consider Sterlite. The smelter’s toxic waste had to go somewhere, and there was an obvious dumping zone just 14 kilometers east.

The company shipped copper ore to the city’s port before processing it at their facility, so in March 1996, Anton Gomez, a then-37-year-old organizer from the coastal village of Punnaikayal, went from village to village to gather fishermen for a blockade just days before a delivery. On March 20, Gomez led an armada of some 500 boats to the mouth of the port, where they lined up like a row of teeth. After 15 hours, the ship turned back.

The fishing communities gave the city a blueprint for resistance that Babu would help spread across town.

It was, in some ways, a short-lived victory. The ship sailed to Kochi, on India’s west coast, and Sterlite trucked in the copper ore from there. It would take years for much of Thoothukudi to line up behind what they started, but the fishing communities gave the city a blueprint for resistance that Babu would help spread across town.

Babu grew up in a well-established Catholic family and married into a Hindu family, and those connections helped her build ties between the fishers — most of whom are Catholic as well — and the city’s more affluent population.

When she first heard about the Sterlite project in 1994, Babu, then a professor of English at St. Mary’s College in Thoothukudi, reacted to the company’s arrival like most people in the city: Big business, pensioned jobs. Sounds good. But she soon found that not everyone was enthusiastic about the plant, and she felt she owed it to her students to understand what she was supporting. “In any subject there’s scope for teaching values,” she says. “What I say should be the right thing, as a teacher.”

It wasn’t hard to find experts who could talk about the environmental impact of copper smelters. From them she learned that extracting copper from its ore produces slag full of heavy metals such as lead and cancer-causing minerals like arsenic that leach into soil and waterways if improperly disposed. When those metals make it out to sea, they can bleach coral, kill seagrass, poison fish, and wipe out entire ecosystems. Smelters also release sulfur dioxide gas (SO2), which can impact our lungs and make breathing difficult. High concentrations of SO2 might singe trees and other plants, stunt their growth, and contribute to acid rain, which harms sensitive ecosystems.

“I understood that it was going to be something very serious,” she says.

Problems began almost as soon as the plant went online. On July 5, 1997, several women working in the adjacent Ramesh Flowers, a company that dyes and steam-dries bouquets, stepped outside for lunch and crumpled to the ground unconscious. Cars, jeeps, and vans spent two hours ferrying nearly 100 employees to the government hospital. Babu raced there to meet them and found many of the workers sitting around the hallway. She spoke to one woman who told her she’d just had a miscarriage.

A giant crowd packed Thoothukudi’s bus station that night, demanding the plant be shut down. The magistrate in charge of the district came out and dangled a clutch of keys in front of them. “I’ll close the company,” he declared. Babu chuckles at the memory. “As though all it involved was a lock and a key. I’m laughing now, but it’s so sad.” Weeks later, a closed-door government committee decided Sterlite had done nothing wrong.

“The way to go about things is to keep it very quiet, and before you know it, [Sterlite has] settled with the family.”

Soon after, on August 20, 1997, staff at the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, which has a station nearby, said they came down with headaches and coughing fits set off by smoke from the smelter. In 1999, 11 staff members of All India Radio, working in the vicinity of Sterlite, went to the hospital after inhaling noxious gases. In 2001, toxic wastewater released from the plant polluted a nearby waterbody. The company has also dumped thousands of tons of arsenic-bearing slag in the city, and there have been reports of a number of accidents within the plant that ended in worker deaths or permanent injuries.

Local hospitals became adept at bottling information about these incidents. Police often showed up almost immediately to make sure access to victims or their families was limited. “[The police] have no reason to do that, because they’re not employees of Sterlite, but they behave like that,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, a veteran journalist and anti-Sterlite activist who lives in Chennai. “The way to go about things is to keep it very quiet, and before you know it, [Sterlite has] settled with the family.”

Thoothukudi has plenty of polluting industries, including power and fertilizer plants, so it’s impossible to blame all of the city’s pollution on the smelter. But a 2008 health study seemed to highlight Sterlite’s singular contribution to the city’s woes. Photo by Thom Pierce / Global Witness / The Guardian / UNEP.

The study found that nearly 14 percent of those surveyed had respiratory problems, far above the state average as well as the averages in two “control areas” where no hazardous industries were located. Photo by Thom Pierce / Global Witness / The Guardian / UNEP.

Babu doesn’t blame the victims’ families for taking money. Sterlite’s employees didn’t come from riches, and the loss of a working family member meant — among other things — a significant loss of income. Others may have received no compensation at all. Activists regularly heard about North Indian migrant workers vanishing from the copper plant, young men who spoke little Tamil (the local language), whose mothers and fathers sometimes turned up months later to ask after their sons.

THOOTHUKUDI has plenty of polluting industries, including businesses that produce thermal power and churn out chemical fertilizer, so it’s impossible to blame all of the city’s pollution on the copper smelter. But in 2008, the state relented to pressure from activists and political parties and allowed Tirunelveli Medical College to conduct a health survey of more than 80,000 people who lived within five kilometers of the plant, and the study seemed to highlight Sterlite’s singular contribution to the city’s woes. It found that nearly 14 percent of those surveyed had respiratory problems, far above the state average as well as the averages in two “control areas” where no hazardous industries were located. An unusually high number of residents were sick with neurological disorders, and many women had menstrual problems. Close to 6 percent of men and boys had brain tumors.

The study also discovered massive amounts of iron in groundwater close to the plant, sometimes as much as 20 times what’s considered safe.

By early 2018, protests against the Sterlite expansion — which was already underway and would make the plant among the largest copper smelters in the world, producing 2,400 tons of copper per day — were ramping up.

According to marcher testimonies, police fired on the roughly 50,000 protesters without warning, and officers repeatedly charged protesters with batons.

Babu began a hunger strike outside Sterlite’s gates alongside around 500 women and men on February 12 that year, which morphed into a sit-in. Soon people in affected communities held sit-ins across the area in what would become a months-long agitation that drew widespread support and attention.

Meanwhile, Sterlite’s operating license expired in late March, and, perhaps due to the prevailing mood in the region, the state pollution control board refused to renew the permit. The plant was forced to shut down. But locals, who had lived through many such temporary closures, continued their agitation. They wanted to ensure the smelter would be closed forever. So on May 22, 2018, tens of thousands of protesters marched across the city to bring home their message, converging near the office of the Thoothukudi collector, the official in charge of the district, who had the power to shut the smelter down.

Babu got a phone call a little before noon that day. There had been some disagreement and confusion over where to protest, and so she was at a separate demonstration. “They’re killing the people,” screamed the caller, who was among the marchers. Babu stood up and told everyone. The crowd wailed.

According to official accounts, police started shooting after protesters pelted cops with stones, set fire to vehicles, and surged past barricades.

Dozens of marcher testimonies compiled by People’s Watch, a human rights organization based in Tamil Nadu, tell a different story. According to those accounts, police fired on the roughly 50,000 protesters without warning, and officers repeatedly charged protesters with batons. People’s Watch also found that “there is sufficient preliminary information” to merit investigating whether some police may have instigated the riot by setting fires and throwing stones at other officers.

Babu was subjected to “tremendous harassment,” after the massacre, says Jayaraman. Police officers accused her of “inciting violence” when all she’d done was go to a demonstration, sometimes adding her name to the list of those at a protest even when she wasn’t there. She and other activists were often tossed into wedding halls that served as jails until a rally was over. “They wanted to belittle me to any extent,” Babu says.

This past March, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation charged 71 people with arson and rioting during the attack. A single police officer was charged with something unspecified, but no officers or government officials have been publicly booked for the shootings. In May, People’s Watch called for the official state-appointed investigation into the massacre to be scrapped and begun again with a new team.

No one from Sterlite or its parent company, Vedanta Resources, responded to several phone calls and emails requesting comment on this story. Thoothukudi police also did not respond to several phone calls and emails. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s environmental engineer for Thoothukudi district, S. Sathiyaraj, the one official who actually picked up the phone, declined to comment.

STERLITE WAS FORCED to close the smelter after the massacre, but the company didn’t exactly leave the area. The state government allowed it to continue running “corporate responsibility” programs in Thoothukudi, handing out publicity material at temple festivals, helping local youth get motorbike licenses, and giving cash to hospitals.

“As many methods as possible are used like this to slowly wean away different groups of people to their side,” says Henri Tiphagne, executive director of People’s Watch. He says the state is basically allowing Sterlite to buy its way into an eventual reopening.

According to witness accounts, police fired on the roughly 50,000 protesters without warning, and officers repeatedly charged protesters with batons. The shootings led to the death of 14 people. Many more were injured. Photo by N Rajesh / The Hindu.

More recently, the company has turned its attention to the pandemic. Babu and other activists report seeing Sterlite logos on beds the company donated to the Thoothukudi government hospital. And in April, Sterlite won approval to produce oxygen over a four-month period to help hospitals overwhelmed by patients with Covid-19, even though the decision about whether it can reopen is still pending in the Supreme Court. The company’s 13-page reopening proposal contained just two paragraphs about oxygen, and was largely concerned with “care and maintenance” of the copper smelter so that the company “would be in a position to restart” if it is again allowed to function. In fact, a recent Mongabay investigation revealed that since it started up in May, the plant has been producing less than 10 percent of the 1,050 metric tons per day of oxygen it committed to.

“This is disaster capitalism,” Jayaraman says. He and other activists are building an online “protest museum,” a website that details the anti-Sterlite movement’s history alongside a memorial for the 14 people who died in the shooting and its aftermath. The museum tells the stories of those who were killed and provides a collective forum to mourn. It also continues to push for justice for the victims, and for Vedanta to be held accountable for its environmental crimes. In May this year, on the third anniversary of the massacre, Babu and other activists launched a global “stay-at-home” hunger strike with these same goals in mind.

At the top of the site’s homepage is a famous quote from the author Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

After 25 years battling Sterlite, Babu is struggling to recall who she was before the protests and jail time, before toxins eroded her trust in the world around her, before it became normal to wake up to a frantic phone call.

“I have lost a part of myself, the cheer I used to have the moment I entered the classroom,” she says. “That makes me feel a bit sad.”

Kundera’s quote can be read as being about the fight to remind people of how those with power can oppress us, but maybe it’s also about something more personal, about remembering who you were before you found yourself under all that weight.

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