India: Anti-Vedanta protesters seek justice year after 13 killed

A year after deadly environmental protest, Thoothukudi residents say they are still being intimidated by local police.

    India: Anti-Vedanta protesters seek justice year after 13 killed
    Indian activists hold placards during a protest against Sterlite Industries in Bangalore last year [File: Aijaz Rahi/AP]

    A year after police killed 13 people protesting against pollution from a copper smelter in the port city of Thoothukudi in India's Tamil Nadu state, tensions between the residents and the police are still running high.

    No officer has been arrested or charged in connection with the shootings, and a judicial commission set up to investigate has provided no updates on its progress.

    The incident was one of the deadliest environmental protests in India in a decade. A United Nations working group of human rights experts last May condemned the "apparent excessive and disproportionate use of lethal force by police".

    India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) dropped its inquiry, citing "adequate compensation" paid to victims and attempts by the state to restore law and order, according to a document reviewed by Reuters news agency.

    At the same time, people surrounding the Vedanta Ltd smelter, since shuttered by the state authorities for allegedly poisoning groundwater, say they are still being intimidated by local police. The company has consistently denied the pollution allegations.

    190507141853621

    Some residents allege they were detained and beaten by the police and that they have been refused the right to protest.

    Activist S Mugilan, who released a video critical of the police shootings, has been missing since February 15 - the day he held a news conference in state capital Chennai.

    "People have been intimidated and forced into silence by the police," said 79-year-old AWD Thilak, head of the Thoothukudi Bar Association.

    "This is not real peace, there has been no compromise," he said.

    No action so far

    Local police say all their actions since the shootings have been aimed at keeping the lid on any potential trouble, even if that means curbing some rights to freedom of speech or protest. However, they denied allegations of abuse by officers.

    Police shot at the protesters without warning on May 22, 2018, according to interviews with multiple witnesses at the time. On that day and on May 23, 12 people were killed with shots to the head and chest, half of them from behind, according to a Reuters analysis of post-mortem reports in December.

    Another protester died after being allegedly beaten by the police, according to family members.

    Police said at the time that they were overwhelmed and had opened fire because they feared the protesters were about to attack people in government offices and apartments housing Vedanta workers.

    The Madras High Court in August asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to file charges within four months. Nine months later, no action has been taken.

    A senior CBI official declined to comment on why no charges have been filed. A CBI spokesperson did not respond to a request seeking comment.

    The Judicial Commission also declined to comment, while the NHRC did not respond to a request seeking comment.

    India smelter shooting
    Police stand guard outside a copper smelter controlled by London-listed Vedanta Resources in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu [File: Sudarshan Varadhan/Reuters]

    Meanwhile, Vedanta executives have been pushing to restart the smelter, which was run by its Sterlite subsidiary, with social media postings under hashtags such as #knowthetruth and #reopenSterlite.

    The smelter was shuttered following a Tamil Nadu government order soon after the killings.

    The company, controlled by billionaire Anil Agarwal, has said it regretted the shootings and has consistently denied the plant polluted its surroundings.

    Vedanta did not respond to specific queries on its executives campaigning for the reopening of its smelter, but said in a statement it had a "strong track record" of corporate social responsibility interventions.

    The statement listed community schemes it was currently funding, including a plan to plant a million trees and a drinking water project.

    Local residents say the police are clamping down on any attempts to discuss the shootings or the plant shutdown. When villagers hoisted black flags on their terraces in a protest, police seized the flags, the residents said.

    "If anybody wants to provoke or instigate, the police will not allow it," Murali Ramba, the superintendent of police in the Thoothukudi district, said. 

    The Madras High Court ruled last week that a gathering of up to 500 people would be allowed to mark the anniversary of the shootings on Wednesday. That was despite opposition by the city administration and the police, who said it could disrupt law and order.

    The families of the 13 people killed received two million rupees ($28,430) each in compensation, according to Sandeep Nanduri, the district's top administrative official.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency