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.