Video Editor: Vikram Venkateswaran
Cameraperson: Smitha TK
(This article was originally published on 26 May 2018 and has been reposted on the anniversary of the shooting that took place in Thoothukudi during the anti-Sterlite protests.)
It has been two years since the sound of gunshots and people wailing echoed in Thoothukudi. It was 22 May 2018 when police opened fire on a crowd of men, women and children, and killed at least 13.
The sight was haunting: long lines of hospital beds, mothers and sons tending to wounds, doctors rushing through politicians, relatives and journalists, and the palpable anger in the room.
Nelson Roy, 36, was staring into space. His leg was placed at an elevation as his brother and mother sat next to him, looking dazed. His arms had multiple clots, and the black and blue marks on his chest were visible through his vest. The stitches that closed up the bullet wound would take long to heal.
Nelson was shot in his leg when he was standing in protest against the Sterlite plant in front of the Collectorate on 22 May 2018. He still can’t fathom seeing his close friends being gunned down.
“If you want to shoot us below the knee, why aim for the head? So your motive was to kill us!”Nelson Roy, Victim
Like Nelson, several lay injured in the casualty ward of the Tuticorin Government Hospital.
Two beds away, lay 45-year-old Vinoba. He had been among the thousands marching in the protest and just when he was leaving the location to get a cup of tea, a bullet hit him right in the leg. Another grazed his forehead and before he could compose himself, fast and heavy blows of lathis threw him to the ground. The wounds on his back are evident and he will likely remain bed-ridden for at least 3 months now.
I am the only breadwinner in the family and only if I earn and bring money, will there be food on our plates. How will I manage? I can get loans from people but who will give me loans for 3 months till I get back on my feet? I am helpless.Vinoba, Victim
In February, 2018, around 250 people sat on an indefinite fast in Tuticorin protesting against the Sterlite Copper's plant and its proposed expansion. The protesters alleged that the plant, part of the Vedanta Group, was polluting ground water and air in the area.
The residents decided to continue their fight for 100 days.
Thirty-year-old Amutha, who has been a part of the protests every single day said they had submitted a petition to the Collector on the 30th day, and were promised a response in 10 days. But they never got an answer.
‘On 20 April, we submitted another petition to Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.. . even then no answer,’ she added.
27-year old Saniya, an active member of the transgender community and Youth Congress said, ‘From every family, at least 5 people would join us everyday as some one they know have been affected with cancer. It was with the motive of giving a safe future for our children.’
All of us have been raising our voice incessantly. We thought the 100th day would mark our victory but it became a day of darkness.Sister Sahayatresa, Resident, Tuticorin
Teary-eyed, with seething anger, the victims and their relatives in the casualty ward narrated the line of events.
At around 8am, men, women and children from all over Tuticorin began marching towards the VVD Signal, the trademark spot where protests have been happening for the past 100 days. At around 10.45am, around 50,000 of them walked towards the Collectorate shouting slogans of ‘Shut down Sterlite!’. This has been a leaderless protest all along but a few prominent voices kept reminding all to keep calm and stick to their purpose.
When they were just two kilometres away from the Collectorate, they said they were informed only then that Section 144 was imposed in the area, prohibiting an assembly of people. They were not allowed to walk further.
People of Tuticorin were enraged and said they wanted to only submit a petition to the Collector and so pushing the police aside, they walked forward – still ‘peacefully.’ Nelson recollects nearing the Collectorate and seeing a van already set on fire. He questioned how the vehicle could already been lit when people weren’t even allowed to enter the area.
First, tear gas shells were dropped to disperse the crowd. But people said that before they could compose themselves they heard gunshots. Usually the norm in such situations is to use water cannons and use microphones to ask what the people’s demands are, say the residents of Tuticorin who were caught in the chaos. Though the police said that they made a formal announcement and issued warnings, protestors say none of that was done.
They said the collector and his family were out of town, then why this police firing? If it is an empty building, why chase us ? We would’ve just sat for a while and then left the place. And if someone had come for a dialogue, this issue would have been easily resolved.Michael Robert, Resident, Tuticorin
Saniya remembers seeing a yellow-shirt clad policeman standing on top of a vehicle and shooting while another cop was handling him cartridges.
In a few minutes, the area was filled with wails and cries as people rushed to the hospital. Some said that they didn’t even get an ambulance and so had to carry the injured on 2-wheelers. But what kept the spirit going was how people quickly jumped in to help out.
If one is shot down, another carries him away and 50 of us would march ahead. Every time we stepped forward, they hit us back.Nelson Roy, Victim
The hospital nurses and doctors were all over the place, attending to every single person, ensuring the best service.
Politicians like MK Stalin, TTV Dhinakaran and Kamal Haasan visited the patients at the hospitals but the people ask where these ‘big men’ were when the whole of Tuticorin sat in protest.
So if they come and inquire about our health now, will everything be resolved? Giving a few lakh rupees as compensation will bring a man back to life? WIll that save Tuticorin from Sterlite?Aruna, Director, South Indian Transgender Federation
When asked why the people of Tuticorin were not up in arms 22 years ago, when the Sterlite plant was established, they say there was very little awareness and no social media to spread the word.
Amutha lives in the village of Madathur, just 10 kilometres from the Sterlite plant. She says she can no longer take an early morning or late evening stroll as the air they breathe in is very polluted. Several people in her village have contracted cancer and breathing illnesses, she says.
She says that earlier uterus removal was uncommon and now even she has excessive bleeding and her doctors have attributed it to pollution. People claimed that of the cancer cases received in hospitals in Tirunelveli and Madurai, Tuticorin tops the list.
An VIIIth grade boy died of cancer, and I heard him crying to his friend, ‘It is hurting me da. I think I am going to die.’ He didn’t smoke or drink. Then why did he deserve to die?Nelson, Victim, Tuticorim
Aruna questions why the lives of over 25 lakh people of Tuticorin should be jeopardised for the sake of 5,000 jobs.
A father of 4, Vinoba, says his one-year old child is already finding it too difficult to breathe. When he consulted a doctor, he was told, ‘If you want to save your children, take them away from Tuticorin. The air is toxic.’
Sterlite Copper of Vedanta Limited had faced much opposition in Gujarat, Goa, and Maharashtra before setting base in Tamil Nadu. It was because of its potential to create environmental hazards.
The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said that Vedanta had flouted norms while getting an environmental clearance for its Tuticorin plant by misrepresenting facts and gave a Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report without conducting any public hearing.
The people of Tuticorin are hurt, scarred and bleeding but they have a steely resolve to continue their protest until Sterlite exits Tuticorin.
Can’t Edappadi Palaniswami hear our cries? Can’t the Modi government hear our cries?Till now our Chief Minister hasn’t even visited us. The collector doesn’t even want to talk to us. Only if you’ve done wrong you run away from people, right?Saniya, Resident, Tuticorin