The people's movement in Tuticorin against Sterlite and for a clean environment reinforces the ideal of Swaraj and democracy as envisioned by the father of our nation
The tragic loss of 13 lives in Tuticorin in a police firing on protestors resisting Vedanta’s Sterlite plant is a negation of environmental justice, which is becoming the driving force for movements against predatory and toxic industrial units taking advantage of the norms associated with the so called ease of doing business.
Recall the loss of lives in Kalinganagar, Odisha in 2006 when the police fired at people fighting the establishment of Tata Steel by usurping the land of cultivators. Many in Odisha were also jailed for resisting forcible land acquisition for a steel plant by the Korean company, POSCO.
The Vedanta group’s bauxite project in the Niyamagiri hills in Kalahandi, Odisha had failed because the then environment minister Jayaram Ramesh refused to give environmental clearance. More so, the people’s movement against the project and its rejection by Gram Sabhas finally put a closure on it.
The latest killing in Tuticorin reminds the stranglehold of the industrial units over State apparatus, which is used to further their commercial interests by willfully ignoring and often violating environmental norms. In fact, facts unearthed now reveal that the National Democratic Alliance government changed the environmental clearance norm. According to the norm, if an industrial unit set up without an approval from the people in the designated industrial zone has not got environmental clearance then necessary clearance must be taken from the Gram Sabhas. The government changed it to the effect that the industrial units need not take clearance from people by consulting them or going to the Gram Sabhas if the industrial zone had not got environmental clearance.
It was interpreted as a major step towards economic reform, which benefitted many industries including the Sterlite unit in Tuticorin.
In fact, people's protest against polluting industrial units such as Sterlite is aimed at protecting nature from the effluents and toxic fumes released by the industrial units.
It is important to recall a landmark event in the history of environmental movements in India. In 1977, the Ganjam panchayat in Odisha submitted a petition to the Petition Committee of Rajya Sabha against massive pollution caused by the production of chlorine gas by Jayashree Chemicals.
It was the first ever petition submitted to the Parliament by the people demanding environmental justice. While they did not demand closure of the industrial unit, they demanded adoption of measures to preserve the purity of air and water of the area and requested a legislation to protect air and water from pollution, among others. The committee recommended that there should be a legislation to protect air from pollution and the Parliament enacted a law to protect air from pollution. Notwithstanding the landmark step, people still complain that the air and water of the region is contaminated.
All such developments in the late 1970s preceded the initiatives taken at the global level to establish Brundtland Commission which heralded hope for sustainable development when it submitted a report, Our Common Future in 1987.
Private industrial units have been able to pursue their commercial interests regardless of environmental concerns thanks to the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies since the 1990s. There has been massive expansion of private industrial activities in mineral abundant tribal areas. Yet unrest among tribals is a constant whenever governments allowed these units to undertake operations in the areas which affect them.
One year after several tribals protesting against a bauxite factory in Kashipur, Rayagada district of Odisha were killed, President K R Narayanan in his Republic day eve speech said, “Let it not be said of India that this great Republic in a hurry to develop itself is devastating the green mother earth..... We can show the world that there is room for everybody to live in this country of tolerance and compassion.”
His remark is even more relevant in 2018 in the backdrop of the Tuticorin kilings.
A century ago, Mahatma Gandhi said that pure air, water and plentiful grain constituted the core of Swaraj. In 1939, he interpreted democracy, in terms of access of both the rulers and ruled to pure water and air.
The people's movement in Tuticorin against Sterlite and for clean air, water and land reinforces the ideal of Swaraj and democracy as envisioned by the father of our nation.
The State must deal with such movements of people with greater sensitivity. It must resort to public reasoning, tolerance and compassion to address their needs and take remedial measures.
The approach based on the barrel of gun cannot obviously replace that based on reason and restraint.
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