Thoothukudi, India – She spearheaded a decades-long campaign against a copper smelter over alleged environmental contamination in the south Indian seaside town of Thoothukudi.
Sterlite Copper, the Indian subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, a global mining and metals conglomerate, was forced to shut its plant in 2018, thanks to a sustained and spirited fight led by 67-year-old teacher-turned activist Fatima Babu.
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The plant’s shuttering, said Fatima, “has boosted the morale of the townspeople, which is a very very big thing for us”. “But we would want Sterlite to pay for the damage it has done.”
On May 22, 2018, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Thoothukudi against a proposed expansion of Sterlite’s 400,000-tonne annual capacity smelter, but the police opened fire, killing at least 13 protesters. It was the deadliest environmental protest of the year in the country. The police justified their action saying the protesters pelted stones and burned their vehicles.
The victims were paid a compensation of 2 million rupees ($19,000) but the family members of those killed say the compensation is meagre, as several of them were the sole breadwinners. The UN condemned the “excessive and disproportionate” use of force by police against protesters and sought an inquiry.
India’s National Human Rights Commission conducted an inquiry, but it did not make the report public, lauding the government instead, for acting swiftly and “adequately compensating the victims’ families”.
Within a week of the incident, Tamil Nadu state shut down India’s largest copper plant – which met a third of the country’s demands – following a public outcry.
Sterlite appealed the decision in the Madras High Court. But the court, in an exhaustive 815-page landmark judgement in August last year, refused to allow the reopening of the plant in a rare win for environmental activism in the country.
Fatima, a retired English professor, was one of the petitioners opposing Sterlite in the court, along with political parties, activists and villagers living around the copper smelter.
Widespread environmental degradation
Activists have blamed the copper plant for causing widespread environmental degradation, destroying farmlands, flouting local laws, and subjecting thousands to detrimental health effects.
The factory, which has been closed at least five times since it began production in 1997 for flouting environmental provisions, has denied the allegations. It has also rejected the accusations linking the plant to cancer cases.
The company has appealed against the ruling in the country’s Supreme Court.
Its website describes Vedanta, which has a revenue of $14bn, as a “globally diversified natural resources company, with more than 65,000 employees and contractors, primarily in India, Africa, Ireland and Australia”. Owned by Indian mining magnate Anil Agarwal, Vedanta faces similar charges against its operations in Zambia.
Thoothukudi, with its large port, has attracted several big industries, including Vedanta. Rows of plants dot the city’s coast facing the Bay of Bengal spewing toxic gases, such as sulphur dioxide, and discharging industrial effluents.
Experts say sulphur dioxide emitted from smelters and power plants harm the human respiratory system and kill vegetation in their vicinity.
Bowing to mounting pressure from activists like Fatima and some regional parties, authorities in Tamil Nadu conducted a comprehensive study of more than 80,000 villagers living within a 5km (3 miles) radius of the copper smelter in 2008, over 10 years since Sterlite began production.
The Tirunelveli Medical College and Hospital, which conducted the survey, undertook two more “controlled” studies in places where no hazardous industries were located. This was done for the sake of comparison.
The study found that about 14 percent of those surveyed around Sterlite’s factory had “respiratory diseases”, which according to the study was significantly higher than the state average and in the two “controlled” areas.
It singled out “asthmatic bronchitis” as being more than twice the state’s average “attributable to air pollution due to the presence of gases or a mixture of gases and particulate matter”.
Doctor Rex Sargunam, who retired as the head of a government-run children’s hospital in Chennai, the state capital, said prolonged exposure to sulphur dioxide could lead to chronic bronchitis, particularly affecting children.
There were other worrying trends, like a high incidence of nervous system disorders, brain tumours, cancer, and menstrual disorders among women, according to the study, a copy of which is in Al Jazeera’s possession.
The study found groundwater contamination around 5km of the plant. The iron content in the groundwater of two villages near the plant was 17 and 20 times the permissible levels of less than 1mg/litre, as prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards. “Chemically, at present, this water is unsuitable for drinking,” the study stated.
While the study did not attribute all the health hazards only to Sterlite, pointing to the cluster of 67 industries including the copper smelter, activists, and villagers Al Jazeera spoke to pointed to the fact that only a few among them were considered hazardous.
The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), the state’s pollution control watchdog, has ordered the plant’s closure thrice since 1997, blaming it for excessive release of sulphur dioxide.
But the company has maintained that its emissions have been well within limits, claiming illegal effluent and pollution management by neighbouring industries like a facility producing fertiliser and rare earth.
Sulphur dioxide-related health concerns began coming to light within months after the plant was operationalised in July 1997, when 160 women at a factory adjacent to Sterlite complained of giddiness and vomiting. Several were hospitalised for nearly a week.
A rights group founded by Fatima, Veeranganai – meaning valorous woman in Tamil – staged a protest outside the factory in 1997, forcing the government to close the copper smelter and order an inquiry into the incident.
But the report by the inquiry committee said the source of the toxic fumes could not be definitively traced to the copper plant alone.
“If Sterlite is not guilty, come on, tell us who is guilty for what happened on that day. Otherwise, another Bhopal might happen, killing thousands of people,” said Fatima indignantly, referring to the gas leak in the central Indian city of Bhopal that killed 4,000 people in 1984 – India’s worst industrial disaster.
Dreams of prosperity
Fatima took a keen interest in environmental issues since she began teaching at the young age of 24 at St Mary’s College.
“In 1994, there was much aplomb and fanfare about Vedanta’s arrival in Thoothukudi,” said Fatima. “So, I figured it should be a good thing! I had no idea then that this company would turn out to be so evil,” she said as the 67-year-old diminutive five-foot-tall woman sat down for dinner at her home near the famous 16th-century Catholic basilica located in the heart of the city.
Nearly a quarter-century ago, Vedanta, backed by the state government, sold dreams of prosperity, pensioned jobs, and global recognition for this industrial town, where trawler fishing and industrial effluents had begun dwindling catches.
The company had faced stiff resistance in three other states – Gujarat, Goa, and Maharashtra – before Tamil Nadu’s then-Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa fast-tracked its entry into the state. Jayalalithaa called it a “dream project in the process of industrialising the state” when she laid the foundation stone for the plant on October 31, 1994.
Vedanta’s plant was initially opposed by Thoothukudi’s large fishing and farming communities who constitute two-thirds of the city’s population.
The fishermen opposed a proposed 8km-long wastewater pipeline from the plant to the sea. They feared effluents from the plant would further decrease the fish population and threaten their livelihoods.
While farmers opposed the diversion of 10 percent of the city’s water supply from the Thamiraparani River to the copper smelter.
Sterlite Copper’s CEO Pankaj Kumar acknowledged the water diversion as a sore point with the locals, but said the company is investing in desalination plants to replace “100 percent of the water from the river”. The plant has been closed since May 2018 and so no water from the river has been diverted since.
A forgotten chapter in more than 20 years’ struggle against Sterlite plant is how the fishing community successfully blocked the proposed wastewater pipeline back in March 1996, when fishermen blocked the first consignment of copper ore from Australia from entering the harbor.
“It was a united decision by boat owners and fishermen to blockade the ship [bringing the ore]. We stocked up on food and rations for a few days,” said Jesurathinam Ashok, a stout middle-aged fisherman who participated in that protest as a young 20-year-old.
Port authorities negotiated a settlement by day-end and the ship was eventually forced to travel to Kochi, a town facing the Arabian Sea, 267 nautical miles (494.5km) away. And Sterlite abandoned its plans for the wastewater pipeline.
“Fatima Akka supported our struggle throughout,” said Ashok sitting in Fatima’s living room, fondly likening her as an elder sister, as Akka means in many south Indian languages.
Ashok remembered how Fatima was often the only woman not affiliated to any political party lending support to the fishermen’s fight against Vedanta.
Thoothukudi is home to nearly 700,000 people, one-third of whom are Catholics who are mostly engaged in fishing.
The Christian fishermen are colloquially referred to as Fernandos while their caste name is Paravars.
Fatima was born and raised in Thoothukudi in a large and wealthy Catholic family. Her father Michael George Rodriguez took to sculpting. He would sculpt figurines of Mother Mary and baby Jesus and fly down to Colombo, the capital of neighbouring Sri Lanka, to sell them.
Her mother Ursula Moraes, a housewife was a pillar of support for her. “My mother was progressive. She is my role model,” she said.
As residents protested the possibility of toxic effluents and air pollution from the copper smelter, Fatima turned to her college principal, a Roman Catholic nun and a world-renowned marine biologist, to understand the smelting process and its harmful effects.
“That’s when I was convinced that I must oppose this company, come what may. I had not thought of what that might entail, or the consequences, but I knew I had to fight it,” said the teacher-turned-activist.
The campaign gained momentum following the fishermen’s success in 1996 quickly faded until the gas leaks a year later as the issue failed to galvanise the larger population of the city.
Fatima and several other activists blamed longstanding fissures in Thoothukudi society for the lack of a united struggle against the plant. They claim Vedanta and successive state governments exploited the fissures over the years.
Sterlite’s CEO Kumar rubbished the activists’ claims, calling them instigators “who are not from Thoothukudi and are trying to cause trouble”.
While the fishing and farming communities have been residents of Thoothukudi for centuries, industrialisation since the 1970s has brought relatively wealthier trading communities, like the Nadars to the city.
“If you ask me my single biggest achievement in Thoothukudi over the years has been to unite these two communities – the fishermen and Nadars – of Thoothukudi, which had been divided by Vedanta,” Fatima claimed.
But it has not been easy. She has been the target of attacks and slander for her activism. Her Christian faith, she said, was used to turn people of other religions against her. She even received death threats, which she blames on Vedanta.
“Several people asked me to hire security, but I have not bothered. I still travel everywhere on my own,” she said, adding that the threats have not deterred her.
The coming together of the trading and fishing communities happened overtime as instances of groundwater and air pollution, coupled with a rise in detrimental health effects, got city residents searching for answers.
Side by side, there were sustained campaigns by many social and environmental groups and damning reports by the National Environmental Engineering Institute (NEERI) and other court-appointed bodies.
The plant was shut down for the second time in 1998 following NEERI’s report that suggested the possibility of widespread environmental degradation and detrimental health consequences if Sterlite’s plant continued operations. The report also blamed government authorities for granting permissions to Vedanta “contravening” India’s environmental laws.
NEERI also pointed out that the copper smelter is 14km (8.7 miles) from the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, as opposed to the mandated 25km (15.5 miles).
Sterlite has argued in courts that the Gulf of Mannar had not been declared a wildlife sanctuary under India’s 1972 Wildlife Protection Act and that the UNESCO designation as a Biosphere Reserve came only in 2001, four years after the company began operations.
This closure was reversed by the Madras High Court following NEERI’s subsequent report months later in February 1999, which despite finding contamination in groundwater and air pollution around Vedanta’s factory, did not blame the company squarely this time.
Chennai-based activist Nityanand Jayaraman claims this is because subsequent reports were conducted at the behest of the company and funded by it as well. Both the company and the research organisation have maintained that the investigation and its findings have always been objective.
The plant was shut down for the third time in 2010 by the Madras High Court, but its order was reversed by the Supreme Court two days later, on an appeal by Vedanta.
Three years later, in April 2013, the Supreme Court agreed with the petitioners who alleged “misrepresentation and suppression of facts, violation of statutes and causing harm to the environment” by Sterlite, but allowed the facility to function citing the company’s “substantial” role in fulfilling India’s demand for copper. The court, however, slapped a fine of 1 billion rupees ($17m) for environmental restoration.
Ramamurti Vaigai, Fatima’s lawyer for the case in Madras High Court, said last year various courts have applied the “sustainable development” principle and allowed industries to function despite finding them guilty of pollution.
She said the “development” generally took priority over the “environment” in most developing nations out of fear of losing foreign investments.
Cases of cancer
India opened up its economy in 1991 in the wake of a crippling foreign currency reserve crisis as the country needed investments to spur growth.
Vedanta found support among the state’s main rival parties – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK). Between them, they have ruled Tamil Nadu for more than 50 years.
A spokesperson for the opposition DMK who did not wish to be named admitted that environment and climate were not priorities for the party “until recently”. He, however, said, “The party firmly opposes the plant’s functioning now.”
The plant was shut down for the fourth time following a major gas leak on March 23, 2013, when walkers in parks fainted and school going kids choked on their breakfasts. But three months later, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) allowed it to reopen.
Reegan is a 38-year-old Fernando conch trader and an active member of the Anti-Sterlite People’s Movement (ASPM) – an umbrella group founded by Fatima to bring diverse political and social groups together in the fight against the copper plant. He says the 2013 gas leak and several deaths in his family prompted him to reach out to Fatima.
Reegan lost four of his family members and his fiancee to cancer. Melpa, his fiancee, died when she was 23, a year after she was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015. His grandfather died of bone cancer in 2003. But back then he did not connect his grandfather’s death to the pollution from the copper smelter.
His home is closer to the sea, a good 13km (8 miles) away from the Sterlite factory, and he did not think the effects of its pollution could travel that far. As more family members began dying of cancer, he wondered if they were interconnected.
Many like Reegan gravitated to Fatima’s organisation due to personal losses linked to the smelter.
Swarnavelpandian Raja, 45, who owns a stationery store in the city, lost his mother to uterine and lung cancer in 2010. Raja’s home abuts the harbour, again about 15km (9 miles) from the copper factory. He said his mother constantly complained of extreme fatigue and breathing difficulties, but none thought it could be because of toxic fumes. The 2013 gas leak changed that.
Raja is a Nadar and a member of the Traders’ Union of Thoothukudi – an influential body representing almost all the city’s 75,000 traders whose support to fight Vedanta has been crucial.
He reaffirmed much of what Ashok, the fisherman who had participated at the protest at sea, said about Fatima, calling her the guiding force who largely worked behind the scenes.
Trigger for 2018 protests
The trigger for the last phase of protests in early 2018 was the clearances granted by India’s state and central authorities for a doubling of the copper smelter’s capacity from 1,200 tonnes a day to 2,400 tonnes.
This would have made the smelter the world’s largest by volume – a feat Vedanta touted considerably in press engagements but was feared by Thoothukudi’s residents as impending doom.
The permission was granted without conducting a public hearing, required as per law, alarming activists and residents.
The company argued that expansion of an existing facility did not mandate public hearings, an argument thrown out by the Madras High Court.
As the company proceeded rapidly on its expansion plans investing nearly 6 billion rupees ($92m) in construction between December 2016 and October 2017, villagers living around the copper smelter began gatherings in secret at nights to strategise their next course of action.
One of the first people they reached out to was Fatima.
“Kumarareddiyapuram villagers were the first to reach out to me, and I was quite surprised as that had supported Vedanta for long,” said Fatima.
“And that’s when I began attending some of those meetings as well,” she told Al Jazeera.
Raja, through the traders’ body, convinced 75,000 shop owners of Thoothukudi to stick anti-Vedanta posters outside their shops and ran a signature campaign.
“The response was overwhelming. Within the first day we had 5,000 signatures”, said Raja, a burly middle-aged man, boastfully.
When Fatima’s anti-Vedanta platform ASPM, gave a call for protests, the traders’ body “simply asked all shop owners to down their shutters for a few hours in a day and turn up at the protest venue”, Raja said.
On March 24, 2018, nearly a third of the city’s population poured into Thoothukudi’s streets in the biggest ever strike against Vedanta.
“We did not anticipate this response, and we certainly did not think we would sustain it for 100 days,” said Raja excitedly.
The protests lasted 100 consecutive days and turned bloody on May 22 after police fired on protesters. But it forced the Tamil Nadu government to shut Sterlite’s facility for the fifth and final time a week later.
‘Zero effluent facility’
The area around the copper smelter is underdeveloped with rundown houses haphazardly constructed lining the dirt roads.
Farming has all but disappeared. The state’s agriculture department in court submissions in 2011 said farming has dropped to 10 percent as most of the lands have been converted to industries or divided into housing plots.
Residents blamed slag dumps, toxic groundwater, and sulphur dioxide fumes for poisoning their fields. Slag is an iron and gypsum rich commercially traded byproduct of smelting copper. For every tonne of copper extracted from ore, 2.2 tonnes of slag is produced.
In court submissions in 2019, TNPCB blamed Vedanta for dumping nearly six million metric tonnes of slag in 20 locations across the city and its surroundings and choking rainwater runoffs to River Uppar, which runs along Thoothukudi, leading to the town’s flooding several times in the recent past.
Vedanta claimed innocence blaming it on slag buyers, but the court rejected the argument holding the company responsible for the safe disposal of all waste generated by the smelter.
Fatima’s counsel Vaigai called the August ruling precedent-setting, as this could affect several hazardous industries in India, that have contracted out waste disposal to third parties over the past 25 years.
Many villagers Al Jazeera met did not want to be identified. They either fear Vedanta or have divided loyalties as the company has invested in crucial areas like drinking water supply as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities in its vicinity – activities that are mandated by law for private firms.
CEO Kumar claimed groundwater had not been potable “much before” Vedanta’s arrival. In one of the villages – Meelavittan, which is less than 2km from the copper smelter, Vedanta has paid for piped water directly supplied to homes from the municipality-constructed overhead tanks.
This was amid the COVID-19 pandemic and two years after the plant was shut down. In the past, Vedanta has renovated local temples, sponsored a health facility at Thoothukudi’s government hospital and donated towards educational facilities.
A 67-year-old man in Therku Veerapandiyapuram, a village close to the plant, took Al Jazeera to the local well where the water was green-tinged. “If you drink it you will die. I have seen birds that peck on the water shrivel and die,” the man said not wishing to be identified.
Vedanta claimed that it is a “zero effluent” facility “right from day one”. “We have one large effluent treatment plant within the factory premises and that takes care of all the effluents that goes out of the plant,” CEO Kumar told Al Jazeera.
But Fatima, sitting in her living room, was not convinced. As the legal challenge continues in the Supreme Court, she said, Vedanta must “leave at the earliest”.
“But before they leave, they will have to pay for all the damages they’ve done to us in terms of health, in terms of the environment and loss of livelihood. Yes, this is one thing still not settled. We have to get it done,” she told Al Jazeera.