Backstory: Telling the Sterlite Story Demands Environmental Understanding

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

In the mid-20th century, a woman writer who could be seen as one of the progenitors of environmental journalism wrote that it is not possible to understand human beings without understanding their environment. The US chemical industry lobby of the 1950s and the early 1960s was as powerful as Big Tobacco, and no newspaper or magazine was willing to publish anything against it. When Rachel Carson – for it was she – went ahead and published her book, Silent Spring, about a landscape that could be devastated by indiscriminate pesticide use and where birdsong will never fill the spring air, she was attacked as a communist, and her work dismissed as non-scientific and emotional.

History has borne out the importance of her contributions and one cannot but remember Carson’s warning about how harmful chemicals “pass by underground streams… until they emerge… and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells” when considering the great human costs extracted by a copper smelting giant in our backyard. The story of Vedanta’s  Sterlite Copper in Thoothukodi does not go back a few weeks, or months. What is often unstated in the innumerable media reports on the plant is that people here have been protesting its toxic impacts since its inception in the late 1990s.

If the local police had not mowed down 13 protestors with sniper fire on May 21, no one would have been particularly concerned about Sterlite’s slow poisoning of the water, seas, land and air in this extremely ecologically fragile zone, a few short miles from the Gulf of Mannar. Despite scientifically conducted surveys revealing high concentrations of copper, lead, cadmium, arsenic, chlorides and fluorides in groundwater samples taken from the plant’s neighbourhood and epidemiological studies which indicate high prevalence of respiratory tract diseases in the population; despite episodes of gas leaks that have led to hospitalisations, this gargantuan plant has carried on. Early this year, it moved on its ambitious plan to double its capacity – from producing 400,000 tonnes it now hoped to touch 800,000 tonnes a year, and emerge as the second biggest copper producer in the world. It was this that triggered the latest round of protests.

Even after a laggard state government was forced to order a shutdown of the plant, its CEO told Reuters that the company is confident that it “will be able to overcome these issues”. Not only does he hope to restart operations, expansion plans are by no means discarded. Now where would such confidence come from? Clearly Sterlite believes it has enough social, political, judicial and administrative capital built up over years of steady lobbying and the doling out of gratifications – we know for a fact that Vedanta is the biggest contributor to both the BJP and Congress coffers – to ride out this round. Media silence and tacit support is, of course, crucial for the company at this stage. The idea that “anti-social elements” were behind the protests was first put out in the public domain by no less than Anil Agarwal, chairman of Vedanta Resources, in an interview with a pink newspaper. It’s intriguing, is it not, that actor Rajinikanth used the very same expression recently?

News reports of how over 30,000 jobs are at stake, 40% of India’s copper production will be hit, and how the shutdown would cost India $2 billion, are already doing the rounds. This may well be the case, but the question that needs to be raised is, why did the company adopt a policy of playing fast and loose with environmental regulations and then “managing” the consequences through blandishments and threats? Haven’t we, as a country, been here before – to be precise, on the night of December 2, 1984? The world’s largest manmade disaster, Bhopal (although Chernobyl is a strong competitor for such a distinction), led to the building up of a strong environmental journalism movement in the country. As another World Environment Day (June 5) comes around, we should build upon, not discard, that legacy.

The Wire has been one of the few media platforms to actually follow this story much before it made the national headlines with the mowing down of 13 through police firing. Six weeks earlier, it had carried an extremely comprehensive report on the public anger on the ground. No mainstream newspaper, forget television channels, would likely arrive at the conclusion this piece does: “In FY 2016-17 alone, the profit-before-tax of Vedanta Ltd.’s operations in India was Rs 13,946 crore, according to the Vedanta Tax Transparency Report 2016-17. With this number in mind, the government should order Vedanta Ltd. to cease operations in Thoothukudi, make the company clean up the ecological damage it has wrought, and ensure that victims receive fair compensation. Only that will be a real deterrent.”

A ground report filed for The Wire soon during the maelstrom of May 22, that saw the first 11 firing deaths at Thoothukodi, captured voices on the ground along with great photographs, both of which rendered it the immediacy of television reportage. This report was an example of how the unique nature of a cyber portal, which combines the strengths of both print and visual media, can be harnessed.

An aspect of the Sterlite story that tended to be forgotten was the potential hazards the plant poses to the Gulf of Mannar, that is home to 4,000 marine species and is known as one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in Asia. Environmental activist and journalist, Nityanand Jayaraman, had pointed out that the very installation of the plant in a populated area and within 14 km from the Gulf of Mannar, constituted a grave violation of environmental norms and the stipulation of a 25 km distance on which permission was granted in the first place. Given this, the inclusion of a new video series on the Gulf of Mannar, produced by the Care Earth Trust and the Society for Conservation Biology, as part of The Wire’s general coverage of Thoothukodi, was clever thinking .

In the next few months, the press of politics will be tremendous. Already Kairana and Palghar elections have relegated Thoothukodi back to its ordained GPS location “down south”. The Wire would do well, however, to keep abreast of this story. It defines post-liberalisation India.


All Hail Acharya Atal!

By holding up a mirror to those who are meant to hold a mirror to power, Cobrapost’s Acharya Atal has emerged a true guru of our times. Those stung by the Cobrapost expose may scramble for cover, rush for court injunctions and take-down orders, or valiantly pretend that they went along with the Cobrapost sting only in order to sting them back, but the manner in which they succumbed to the Acharya’s gilded plan of peddling media content that reflects a Hindutva-fuelled, opposition-mukt politics indicates that they are by no means unfamiliar with such proposals. So, perhaps, far from being the figment of the Cobrapost’s imagination, such multi-crore allurements may well have become part of the business model of some of the biggest media players of democratic India. The persuasive skills of many an acharya could be behind the hitherto inexplicable discarding of basic journalistic norms that stamps media content today. The Radia Tapes episode, which broke in 2011, had indicated that ‘acharyas’ come in all shapes, sizes, gender, and have been around a while. But the mainstream journalism on view since the run up to the 2014 election and thereafter, which is not just biased but appears to flow directly from the government’s publicity machine, could only have been shaped by multiple acharyas turning on the spigots.

Will this surgical sting lead to some introspection in media ranks? As the writer of The Wire piece, ‘Forget the Cobra That Stings, We Need to Worry About the Media That Poisons’ argues, “Instead of retreating into a shell of denial, the Indian media needs to use this occasion to stem and reverse the rot which lies exposed.” But that will not happen if the business model of these gargantuan empires continue to remain beyond scrutiny and reform. The Wire ran with the story from the moment Dainik Bhaskar, which prides itself on its “trustworthiness” going by the logo, sought an ex-parte injunction to restrain Cobrapost. Which is just as well, because it is precisely because the mainstream media is what it is, that news portals like this one that don’t engage with acharyas, are emerging as credible news alternatives.


The [email protected] takes an extremely focused interest in The Wire, never failing to chide it for its editorial stances. The latest grouse was that the English media failed to adequately cover the Amnesty report on #Rohingya militants killing Hindus in hate crimes. He notes that while the Times of India put a story on it on the front page, it avoided mentioning ‘Hindus’ in the headline, while the Hindustan Times carried a snippet on world page and the Indian Express did not cover it at all. He goes on to say, “I didn’t see anything from Wire which wants India to treat these terrorists equivalent to marginalised Bangladeshi Hindus who are getting treated in ill manner by Bangladeshi Government & citizens…” He then goes on to say that while the media have shed tears over the Tamils “because they were humans first”, they don’t care about Hindus at all. I look forward to his next critique which I hope will be in more polite language.


A few weeks ago this column had commented on the Kathua rape and murder. ​ Laadli, an initiative that awards good journalism on women and the girl child, has just come out with a white paper on the media coverage accorded to this case and underlines the importance of understanding the structural specificities of cases like this that goes beyond sexual and gender-based violence and includes “the role of the nation-state itself, the dominant narratives and sentiments of nationalism, the structural violence by the state in Kashmir valley, the minoritization of the Bakarwal community in Jammu region and majoritarian politics.” The specificities of the case, the white paper argues, demands more “intersectional and delicate treatment” in the reporting of it.


I will end this column with a word of praise from a reader of The Wire, Devinder Sharma, who comments that the portal now seems to have “established itself”. Well, in this life of media, a three-year-old had better learn to keep up with the big boys and girls on the block or it could get badly left behind.

Write to [email protected]