When the residents of Cochabamba, Bolivia lost control of their municipal water supply system to companies like Bechtel, Edison and Abengoa — they launched the Guerra del Agua, the water war.
After facing rejection in three states, Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra, Vedanta’s obtainment of the environmental clearance to run the plant in the State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu complex (SIPCOT), in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, is questionable.
In 2013, the Supreme Court believed that the Madras High Court’s conclusion to close the Sterlite plant was unwarranted for. In agreement with the NEERI reports, that the plant’s effluent and emission discharge affected the environment, the Supreme Court was satisfied with the plant’s continuation if it undertook remedial steps.
The Madras High Court had on observations of the plant’s close proximity (less than 25 km) to the ecologically sensitive Gulf of Mannar in violation of the consent order, the absence of a public hearing, the reduction of the green belt, and non-application of mind by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board on the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Consent Order, ordered the closure of the plant.
Sterlite argued that the Consent Order allowed the plant’s operation in SIPCOT, which was within 25 km of the Gulf of Mannar. Consequently, the Supreme Court noted that the Consent Order had not been violated, the public hearing was not mandatory and Rapid EIA was permitted under the 1994 EIA Notification. The Court under Article 21 and in the light of the NEERI reports ordered the payment of damages and the taking of remedial measures to check effluent and emission discharge.
The judiciary balanced interests and it favoured the non closure of the Sterlite plant. The Supreme Court judgment dates to the year 2013 pursuant to which the Sterlite plant was expected to take remedial steps. A May 2017 study reveals, “…a comparison of the results of groundwater samples with WHO guidelines reveal that most of the groundwater samples are heavily contaminated with heavy metals like arsenic, selenium, lead, boron, aluminium, iron and vanadium. The selenium level was high 0.01 mg/l in 82 % of the study area and the arsenic concentration exceeded 0.01 mg/l in 42 % of the area. The results reveal that heavy metal contamination in the area is mainly due to the discharge of effluents from copper industries, alkali chemical industry, fertiliser industry, thermal power plant and seafood industries.”
Over the sacred mountain Niyamigiri, Vedanta shuddered at the march in step of the Dongria Tribe that constructed for itself an ecological democracy. In a ploy to discredit the Niyamigiri Suraksha Samiti, the State has tried to label its members as Maoist.
Who does the State stand for if not for a people’s movement? Can we call our system of governance a democracy – a system that in the name of ‘law and order’ aggressively suppresses dissent and disagreement with state policies? We must become a democratic process, breaking away from the vocabulary of the democratic state.
Jacques Ranciere calls democracy a conflictual and disruptive manifestation of the principle of equality, the ungovernable on display. The ungovernable challenge the hierarchical distribution of spaces, roles and functions as an egalitarian activity. There is no other effective means for a citizen to bargain with the government but through public demonstrations. A regular citizen does not have access to avenues of lobbying and private under the table dealings with government.
Thus, on March 24, 2018, the ungovernable came on display in Thoothukudi agitating for the closure of the plant that had been contaminating their region. The conflict for equality in the bargaining power for shared control over our resources, its usage and consequences, was grossly disrespected by our State that fired at its citizens.
The Kudankulam protests in Tamil Nadu saw the charging of more than 6,000 agitators under Section 121 (waging war against the government) and Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). What is waging war in a democracy against a government that represents the interests of the ruling class but the moral right of the unrepresented?
With these questions, I leave the readers, hoping that we deal with this situation the same way the residents of Cochabamba did – as warriors.