By Sudarshan Varadhan
THOOTHUKUDI, India (Reuters) – A year after Indian police killed 13 people protesting against pollution from a copper smelter in this hardscrabble southern port city, tensions within the community and between residents and the police are still running high.
No officer has been arrested or charged in connection with the shootings, and a judicial commission set up to investigate has provided no updates on its progress.
The incident was one of the deadliest environmental protests in India in a decade. A working group of United Nations’ human rights experts last May condemned the “apparent excessive and disproportionate use of lethal force by police”.
India’s National Human Rights Commission has dropped its inquiry, citing “adequate compensation” paid to victims and attempts by the state to restore law and order, according to a document reviewed by Reuters.
At the same time, people surrounding the Vedanta Ltd smelter, since shuttered by the state authorities for allegedly poisoning groundwater, say they are still being intimidated by local police. The company has consistently denied the pollution allegations.
Some residents allege they have been detained and beaten by the police, and that they have been refused the right to protest.
One activist, S Mugilan, who released a video critical of the police shootings, has been missing since Feb. 15 – the day he held a news conference in state capital Chennai.
“People have been intimidated and forced into silence by the police,” said 79-year-old A W D Thilak, the head of the Thoothukudi Bar Association. “This is not real peace, there has been no compromise,” he said.
VEDANTACAMPAIGN TO REOPEN
Local police say that all their actions since the shootings have been aimed at keeping the lid on any potential trouble, even if that means curbing some rights to freedom of speech or protest. However, they denied allegations of abuse by officers.
Police shot at the protesters without warning on May 22, 2018, according to interviews with multiple witnesses at the time. On that day and on May 23, 12 people were killed with shots to the head and chest, half of them from behind, according to a Reuters analysis of post-mortem reports in December.
Another protester died after being allegedly beaten by the police, according to family members.
Police said at the time they were overwhelmed and had opened fire because they feared the protesters were about to attack people in government offices and apartments housing Vedanta workers.
The Madras High Court in August asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Indian equivalent of the FBI, to file charges within four months. Nine months later, no action has been taken.
A senior CBI official declined to comment on why no charges have been filed. A CBI spokesperson did not respond to a request seeking comment.
The Judicial Commission declined to comment. The National Human Rights Commission did not respond to a request seeking comment.
Meanwhile, Vedanta executives have been pushing to restart the smelter, which was run by its Sterlite subsidiary, with social media postings under hashtags such as #knowthetruth and #reopenSterlite.
The smelter was shuttered by a Tamil Nadu government order soon after the killings.
The company, which is controlled by the billionaire Anil Agarwal, has said it regretted the shootings occurred and has consistently denied the plant polluted its surroundings.
Vedanta did not respond to specific queries on its executives campaigning for reopening its smelter, but said in a statement it had a “strong track record” of corporate social responsibility interventions. The statement listed community schemes it was currently funding, including a plan to plant a million trees and a drinking water project.
Santhosh Raj, a 22-year-old protester who witnessed the death of the first man shot that day, said that in mid-January he was abruptly blocked by men on motorbikes who dragged him by his collar and forced him into a jeep, where he was blindfolded.
“They started hitting, from all sides. My back hurts even today,” Santhosh told Reuters at his residence in Pandarampatti, a village on the outskirts of Thoothukudi. He said he was switched to a different vehicle and taken to an unknown location where his blindfold was briefly removed so that police could take his photograph. The officers made him sign a document, though he does not know what was in it. Santhosh says police threatened to kill him for campaigning against the smelter’s reopening, and says he was subject to beatings throughout the day. Murali Ramba, the superintendent of police in the Thoothukudi district, said Santhosh had been arrested because he was instigating protests and disrupting law and order. He denied that Santhosh had been abused or threatened.
Local residents say the police are clamping down on any attempts to discuss the shootings or the plant shutdown. When villagers hoisted black flags on their terraces in a protest, police seized the flags, the residents said. “If anybody wants to provoke or instigate, the police will not allow it,” Ramba said.
The Madras High Court ruled last week that a gathering of up to 500 people would be allowed to mark the anniversary of the shootings on Wednesday. That was despite opposition by the city’s government and the police, who said it could disrupt law and order.
In the days and weeks following the protest, local police detained 277 people, mostly aged between 18 to 30, though they were all subsequently released following a court order.
The families of the 13 people killed received 2 million rupees ($28,430) each in compensation, according to Sandeep Nanduri, the district’s top administrative official. None of the families are known to have hired a lawyer to seek more, though the Madras High court said in an order in August that the CBI could decide to award higher compensation if it thinks it is warranted following an investigation.
Many of those killed, injured or arrested came from villages around the plant, which is about 10 km (6 miles) from the centre of the city.
It has meant losses of income, hurting local businesses, and disrupted education. Some have been unable to take up jobs abroad because they face charges.
People seeking justice are still being picked up by police, said Hari Raghavan, an activist lawyer. The police “summon people without paying heed to basic things like giving them time to ask for leave from their employer”, said Raghavan, who was himself detained for protesting against Santhosh’s disappearance. ($1 = 69.73 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson)