Sterlite Workers: 'Anil Agarwal Can't Undo Our Pain. Where Do We Go From Here?'

A ground report from Tuticorin lays bare a long trail of negligence in Sterlite's factory and the impact of the plant's closure on workers.

Thoothukudi: On the outskirts of this coastal city in Tamil Nadu, 34-year-old Karthiban has gone into a deep depression. Sitting crouched on a stone slab, frantically chewing fingernails on his left hand, he says: “I tried. I tried to live. But I needed to die, and dying is better than living without my right hand”.

Karthiban got injured in 2017 while working at Sterlite’s copper plant here. After working for four years in the plant, his medical expenses were covered by ESI (Employees’ State Insurance) payments, but his long wait for a pension of Rs 5,000 that he is entitled to, continues. The amount is a pittance compared with his loss, but even that is nowhere in sight. “After losing my hand, I still haven’t received any compensation. I waited and repeatedly asked the company. They would tell me to come later, over and over again,” he says. To add to his woes, Karthiban’s wife, who also worked at the factory, is now without a job after the Tamil Nadu government ordered the plant’s closure on May 28.

The state government ordered the factory, owned by London-based Vedanta Resources, to permanently shut down following last week’s police firing in which 13 people protesting against environmental pollution health hazards caused by Sterlite’s copper plant were killed. The protests had been reportedly going on for the past three months.

There is a deafening silence on the streets and little celebration, as the plant’s closure announcement has changed everything for workers. A total of 3,500 workers may be laid off while another 30,000-40,000 people work for it indirectly, in ancillary units of one kind or another, will also be affected.

Karthiban is one among many injured workers who have not yet received compensation from Sterlite. But some settlements for families whose breadwinners have died in the factory premises go up to lakhs of rupees, and are settled unofficially, claims Adhisaya Kumar, a lawyer who has been fighting cases on behalf of Sterlite workers.

A general view shows Sterlite Industries Ltd’s copper plant, a unit of London-based Vedanta Resources, in Tuticorin, in Tamil Nadu April 5, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Stringer/Files

‘Action dropped’

Kumar filed an RTI with the sub-inspector of police at the SIPCOT police station in Tuticorin, seeking information on the number of deaths and injuries in the plant between 2006 and 2010. What he received as a reply came as a shock to him. As per the RTI reply, 20 deaths were reported and FIRs filed by the local police, but two words repeatedly stood out in each case – “Action dropped”. “Why was action dropped, we don’t completely know. But what we have heard is that these cases get settled unofficially,” he says.

A security guard stands in front of the main gate of Sterlite Industries Ltd’s copper plant in Tuticorin. Credit: Reuters

Prosecution is an option in the case of industrial accidents, especially a major one where the consequences are so obvious that the government official concerned has to take cognisance. Though negligence is almost certainly indicated in Karthiban’s case, and of many other injured workers, these cases were never pursued.

As per section 1A regarding liability under the Fatal Accidents Act, 1855, whenever the death of a person shall be caused by wrongful act, neglect or default, the party injured is entitled to maintain an action and recover damages. The party who would have been liable if death had not ensued, shall be liable to an action or suit for damages also. But this is hardly followed in the Sterlite plant, as the FIRs filed hang in the air.

Bhakiyaraj, 40, a former factory inspector, confirms Kumar’s claim that settlements done by the company outside the books is the preferred route. “It is like a panchayat, where there is an actual team from the company that comes down and tries to get people to drop charges and pays them a lump sum. This has been happening for years,” he says.

Bhakiyaraj also points out that migrant workers from North India bear the brunt of unsafe working conditions, losing their limbs or arms to dangerous procedures in the plant. “They (the company’s management) see them (migrant workers) as disposable, and think that they won’t create a ruckus,” he says.

‘Company settlements’

Caught in this politics of ‘company settlements’ is Madhav, a 25-year-old from Bihar, who had migrated to work at the plant. “I am leaving,” he says in a video he last recorded before he went back to his home state. “I am leaving with no money. My life has fallen apart, and I hope this video reaches the people it needs to,” he says, dangling his injured hand in front of the camera. Madhav was promised compensation but received none. “I want everyone to know that for the hard work I have done, I never received anything. Nobody cares about me,” he is seen as saying in the video.

In 2007, the Norwegian Council of Ethics had blacklisted Vedanta and advised the Norwegian Government Pension Fund to divest Vedanta stocks, and not invest in the company as it was found violating established norms on human rights, worker safety and environmental compliance. In February 2015 and 2016, Vedanta had written to the council asking for a review of the 2007 decision.

However, on March 9, 2017, the Council of Ethics said: “In 2016, the council performed a particularly thorough assessment of Vedanta Resources, which has been excluded since 2007, but concluded that grounds for exclusion continue to exist.”

Police personnel tackle the agitators demanding the closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit on May 22, when the protest entered the 100th day. Police firing later killed 13 protestors. Credit: PTI

On the other side, there are some workers who have lost their jobs and are relieved. Muthupandi sits on the floor of his house in Pandarampatti village and explains his stance. “I lost my job, so what? So many people have lost their lives to this movement. This is nothing for me,” he says. Muthupandi and other workers were asked a few days before the protest to sign a sheet endorsing the Sterlite copper plant in opposition to the protesters and submit it to the collectorate. He vehemently refused. “The plant is very unsafe for us to work in and we all know that. Deep down in my heart, I know that there is a conflict. I’m working for the same company that is polluting the air I breathe. But given the opportunity, I can easily say that this company means nothing to me if shutting it down ensures good health for my future generation,” says Muthupandi.

Thirty-year-old Malathi, who also used to work at the Sterlite plant, is non-plussed after the closure. “I will get my job back. This sealing and shutting down is only temporary,” she says. She believes the government has done this in order to make sure that the families of the deceased allow the post-mortem to go ahead and pacify them.

However, 40-year-old Mary is cynical and suspicious of the entire situation. She is clear that this is not the time for celebration. “The factory is going to shut and open and shut and open. What is the point? We don’t trust the government, and we don’t trust the police. Anil Agarwal (founder and chairman of Vedanta, which owns Sterlite) can’t undo our pain. Where do we go from here?”

Divya Karthikeyan is an independent journalist based in Chennai.