Thoothukudi: Sundays are about a visit to the port. When a majestic ship arrives, local newspapers and radio shows make announcements. For anywhere between Rs 20 to Rs 40, a person is allowed on the ship and, if the captain is willing, the deck. For children, these are the exciting little things about growing up in a port town.
Along its coast are sandy beaches and salt pans on which mounds of white glisten, reflecting the ample sunlight this hot and humid region receives. Thoothukudi is set against the blue of the Gulf of Mannar. Not far from its coast is a smattering of 21 islands, all part of India’s first notified marine biosphere reserve, and across the water is the island nation of Sri Lanka. It’s no surprise then that tourism attracts and employs many here.
Tall chimneys continuously release a cloud of smoke – another feature of the coastline, reflecting the character of this industrial port town. The industries in Thoothukudi are helped enormously by the easy access to the waters when it is time to ship their goods.
At the port, vessels heading to Southeast Asia and Australia, among other destinations, often make a pit stop to refuel. Local news is abuzz then. Thoothukudi is a name the residents don’t often hear in the national news, and definitely not in the world column.
That changed on May 22 when the local police gunned down 13 residents for protesting against Sterlite Industries, a unit of the global conglomerate Vedanta Ltd., which manufactures copper and aluminum products. The protesters were angry about government inaction against the growing industrial pollution in the area around the plant. The state, alleging violence by the protesters, sided with Sterlite.
Less than 14 km from the coast of Thoothukudi is the SIPCOT industrial estate where Sterlite runs its copper smelter unit. Smelting is a process that uses heat to separate copper from its ore. This process makes use of several chemicals and the waste generated during and after the process tends to be highly toxic. The smelter was built in 1994, barely a kilometre away from the nearest village, despite protests.
Fathima Babu, a professor and activist, was one of the many who initially believed the corporation was good for the town’s economy when it was first announced in the early 1990s. “We thought it might put Thoothukudi on the map and the place will be known for its industrial production and development.” Soon, however, the fishermen began alleging the company was disposing industrial waste in the water.
Then came the health woes. In villages within 5 km of the plant, there were reports of unexplained deaths, cancer, skin infections, eye irritation, respiratory illnesses and miscarriages. Kidney stones among children as young as two raised alarm, as did widespread infertility. Studies have repeatedly confirmed the residents here are victims of a two-pronged attack: from the polluted air and from the polluted groundwater that is their primary source of drinking water.
Yet little help has come their way.
While the violence is new, the agitation is not. In fact, for over two decades now, residents in the villages living around Sterlite have been raising their voice. So far, they have weathered two poisonous gas leaks from the plant.
Babu, joined by several others, has repeatedly taken to the streets demanding justice.
How this place went from a historical port city – Tuticorin was its colonial name – to one where the state government turned on its own people is a story about the town’s desire to grow. One that looked to capitalise on its proximity to the waters. One that, if the signs in the villages are to be believed, came at the cost of their residents.
The hand pump is the lifeline of Thoothukudi’s villages. A familiar sight in most rural settings, the set-up has a long metal rod at one end, anchored to the ground by a pump, and a nozzle at the other end. The rod gives out a metallic screech when moved up and down to draw water up from several meters below the surface.
It’s not exceptional that there are no pipelines in these villages – nor is the fact that groundwater is the only source of drinking water for the villages’ residents. When this water comes out of the nozzle, it has a reddish tinge and a metallic taste to it.
Studies back what is obvious to the naked eye. Drinking water around the Sterlite plant has arsenic, lead, chloride, sulphates and other dissolved material. Several reports by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) between 1998 and 2005 have confirmed it. They were part of the evidence the Supreme Court considered before imposing a fine of Rs 100 crores on Sterlite. A decade on, this is still the water the villagers drink.
Arsenic is known to cause liver, kidney, bladder and skin cancer and anaemia. Lead directly affects the development of the brain and the central nervous system. The air has been reported to contain highly toxic gases, such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, known to cause not just respiratory diseases but also affect mortality, according to the WHO.
A 2008 study by the community medicine department of the Tirunelveli Medical College, Tirunelveli, confirmed that the villages here have been witness to all these problems – and some.
“Skin diseases, gynaecological problems and cancers are common in the area. Sometimes three generations of a single-family report renal stones even though it is not a hereditary condition,” Dr T. Rajalingam, whose clinic is a few kilometres from the plant, told The Wire. He added that cases of developmental delays among children have almost doubled in the last decade.
Red, green, blue, yellow – the plastic pots to store water are a riot of colours. Once every ten days, a tanker from the city’s municipal corporation arrives. Families all stop what they’re doing, pick up the pots and line up to get their fill. Every family is allowed to fill 15 of these pots, no more, of toxin-free water.
When that runs out, they have two options: either buy a pot of water for Rs 10 from a private seller or, of course, use the groundwater. And even the families that purchase drinking water often use the groundwater for other chores, such as bathing their little ones.
In the evenings, when it is still too hot outside, women take out steel buckets, fill them with water from the hand pump and dunk their toddlers inside, where they splash around as they are scrubbed clean with soap. Many living here are still are not aware of how polluted their water is.
When The Wire visited the villages around Sterlite, many residents were scared to give their full names or even talk about their health issues. Since the protest, the police have knocked on the villagers’ doors at midnight. Those whose faces were visible in the sea of people seen marching by cameras on that fateful day have had cases filed against them. Those caught pelting stones have faced sudden arrest. The violence and terror forced Amnesty International to demand an impartial investigation into the shootings.
There is no epidemiological data on cancer cases in the region. According to Cancer Samiksha, a registration project run by the Indian Council of Medical Research, population-based cancer registries in India cover only 10% of its 1.3 billion people. In Tamil Nadu, only statistics from hospitals in Chennai make it to this index.
But the anecdotal evidence was there for whoever wants to see it.
From the village of Therkku Veerapandiyapuram, Jayalaxmi, 62, a former anganwadi worker, was one of the first people to join the 100-day protest against Sterlite this February. Her sister-in-law had been raised in the same village and had recently died of cancer. Her three-year-old grandson, who lives next door, has been undergoing treatment for a respiratory illness for a year and needs a nebuliser.
“Several women in the village have reached menopause at the age of 35,” Jayalaxmi says. “Many women bleed heavily during periods. Scores have had to surgically remove their uterus due to complications.” All this inspired her to join the protest, which ended with the bloody shootings. Now, after police action against protesters in her village, no one visits her small grocery shop. “My business is over,” she says. “I fought not just for the health of my children but also for those of the policemen. But now my neighbours don’t want to be associated with me.”
Kalavati, 46, has been married for half her life and does not have children. She lives in Sankaraperi village, less than 3 km out from the Sterlite plant. Of its hundred or so households, she says there are close to a dozen couples struggling with infertility. Most marital alliances happen here among those living in the same or adjacent villages, and not many talk openly talk about issues like infertility. They hadn’t even connected the dots until recently.
Her neighbour Jayalakshmi, 26, holds a graduate degree in arts from a local college. She said, “It is only now, when more of us started getting educated, that we are waking up to the fact that the pollution is responsible for this.”
All houses in Sankaraperi rely solely on groundwater.
NEERI submitted several reports to the Madras high court on air and water pollution in the area. While the first one in 1998 was perceived to be harsh, subsequent ones claimed that certain pollutants were “within permissible limits”. This term is a veritable Indianism because, internationally, the idea of ‘permissible limits’ does not exist when the subject is exposure to a known carcinogen.
“No level of exposure to a cancer-causing agent can be considered safe,” said David Rosner, an expert on lead poisoning and a coauthor of the book Deceit and Denial (2002), which exposed how chemical industries had deceived Americans of the dangers related to lead. “It is immoral to wait 30 to 40 years for people to get affected before acting.”
Despite the obvious distress in the villages, the Tamil Nadu government has yet to address them. Sandeep Nanduri, the new district collector who took charge after the shootings, said that he wasn’t sure if there was any data on the health issues of the villages but that it would be collected soon. Under fire for the way the state reacted to the protest, Nanduri added it also plans to conduct “health camps and surveys in the villages to find out more.”
While the government sat back and watched as the health incidents mounted over the years, there was one organisation that filled the vacuum – Sterlite itself.
Anushya, 22, lives in a one-storey house in Pandarampatti, with a terrace from where her family has a sweeping view of the Sterlite plant. When the winds blow in the direction of the village, they bring the toxic fumes along.
Sterlite patch. It’s a name one hears over and over again in all the villages. “The blowing winds give the residents the Sterlite patch.”
L Joseph, Anushya’s 41-year-old neighbour, explains, “It is when the skin on our arms, neck and face turns like a scalp with dandruff.”
When pollution levels spike, the villagers only have to look at their arms. Their skin peeling off and itching is all the confirmation they need that something has gone wrong yet again. Their noses help, too: on some nights, the air carries a foul smell – “as if something is burning,” Vijayalaxmi, a mother of two teenage daughters and a resident of Pandarampatti, says.
Until three months ago, a Sterlite-sponsored ambulance would scurry through the narrow lanes of the villages once a week. Its passengers, a male and a female doctor, would cater to any health woes among the residents, and for no cost. The villagers, too poor to afford private healthcare, were all thankful for this doorstep service instead of having to wait in long queues at the government hospital.
For years, it didn’t matter who provided this care as long as someone was doing it. The medicines prescribed took care of the Sterlite patch, and syrups and tablets got rid of the wheezing and the coughing. Any serious case would be referred to the privately-run Meenakshi Mission Hospital in Madurai. Government hospitals would not hear of it.
When asked whether cancer cases or certain illnesses were high in the villages around Sterlite, M. Lalitha, the dean of the Thoothukudi Government Hospital, said, “We haven’t done any statistical analysis of the cases. We receive the same kind of cases that all district government hospitals get.”
When a government hospital doesn’t treat the pollution victims, the documentation becomes compromised. “Data in a private hospital is out of reach of a researcher or even a public health authority,” Anant Phadke, co-convenor of the Jan Arogya Abhiyaan, a coalition of civil society NGOs working on health issues, explained. “Prima facie evidence of respiratory disorders [would be] enough to file a case and request further enquiry.”
Recently, Anushya distributed a form among her neighbours asking them to list their health issues. Everyone who returned the form had respiratory illnesses, kidney stones or, worse, cancer.
In Therespuram, another village about 10 km away from the plant, the same form was filled and returned by over 40 villagers. Among them was a two-year-old with kidney stones, a 15-year-old with skin cancer, several women with breast cancer and men with kidney and lung cancer.
Fathima Babu and her team is behind this endeavour. She mooted the idea after she realised that, to take on Sterlite in court, anecdotal evidence alone would not be enough.
But to Rosner, the idea that Thoothukudi’s residents have to prove that their water and air is polluted in a court of law is itself unfair: “The community has the right to say that we do not like how our water tastes and air smells, so you must leave.” To pit a community with limited means opposite a corporation puts the community at a disadvantage, he reasons.
Those from Thoothukudi working inside the Sterlite plant attest to the fact that safety norms were not followed. “If any worker tried to complain, he was sent to a room called the ‘silent room’. It was dark and had no windows. The worker was locked in for an entire day as punishment,” a former Sterlite employee said. This, and the fear of losing their livelihoods, deterred anyone from speaking out.
The villagers also allege that since the plant was set up, their farms have also been affected. “I would grow cotton here but slowly the yields fell, and everyone had to migrate out in search of jobs,” Joseph says.
In 2010, an NGO called Community Environmental Monitoring collected water samples from villages around Sterlite and found the water to be extremely saline and unfit for agriculture. The levels of sulphate ions and iron were high, the former ten-times beyond the permissible limit. Another study published in 2017 found that levels of arsenic – among other cancer-causing heavy metals – were much higher than WHO standards as well.
Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, a public health historian of Southeast Asia at the Mailman School of Public Health, New York, questions the rhetoric by experts on the side of the state that toxicity can be ‘managed’, especially when the state also sets its developmental goals. “Why is the knowledge of external agencies held to a higher standard?”
After the violence, the Sterlite smelter – with an annual production capacity of 400,000 tonnes – was ordered shut. “We don’t want this to be another Bhopal,” Babu says, “where generations have passed after the 1984 tragedy but whose victims have received no compensation.”
Henri Tiphagne, a lawyer and executive director of the human rights group People’s Watch, who is fighting the case on behalf of Thoothukudi’s residents, said, “In matters of the environment the litigation has to be shortened. Cases cannot continue for so long because it has a serious impact on life around.” He calls the case a failure of the judiciary for the prolonged litigation.
“There has to be a principle of command and responsibility and all those responsible need to be pulled up. A study has to be commissioned and a PIL filed against Sterlite. Compensations have to be paid and it cannot be the same for an 18-year-old and a 60-year-old. Who is to look after the health of the people of Thoothukudi?”
The proximity to the port was meant to generate jobs. While the company is gone, the villagers are readying themselves for a battle in court. As Babu says, “A new struggle has just begun.”
Any fact or quote not attributed was verified by at least three other people not known to each other in separate interviews in different villages.
Disha Shetty is a freelance science journalist.