INDIA: Police violence in Tuticorin a gross violation of due process and rule of law 

On May 22, 2018, the people of Thoothukudi(Tuticorin) were protesting for the 100th day against the environmental damage caused by the copper smelter unit of Sterlite Copper company, a unit of Vedanta Group. 100 days of protests that turned violent on May 22nd, with police firing on the protesters and killing, as on date, 13 persons and injuring others, with great damage to public and private property.

The unit in Thoothukudi has had a tumultuous history with closures ordered by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, a 2013 gas leak that was said to have affected the health of the villagers and the degradation of the environment, and allegations of groundwater pollution in the area. On May 23, 2018, the Tamil Nadu High Court ordered Vedanta to “cease construction and all other activities on-site proposed Unit-II of the Copper Smelting Plant at Tuticorin with immediate effect.” The HC was hearing a writ petition filed in public interest challenging the environmental clearance obtained by Unit-II on 1.1.2009, and subsequently extended on later dates.

While the environmental hazards of the plant and of similar projects of Vedanta industries in other parts of the country are one serious aspect of this issue, the present matter concerns the criminal behaviour of the Tuticorin police in the manner in which the protesters were handled. Members of AHRC’s partner organization, People’s Watch, Tamil Nadu(PWTN), were there at the site of the protests and in its press release states that the protesters turned violent after the police fired upon them. The absolute lack of preparedness of the police and the state administration was clearly visible, according to PWTN, and the escalation of the protests and the violence thereafter that killed so many people, could have easily been avoided.

The protests did not mushroom overnight. The protesters were there for more than 3 months, peacefully demanding their rights and some modicum of action from the authorities. The frustration and anger of the protesters predictably reached boiling point due to the willful ignorance and negligence of the state authorities. The police firing that was alleged to be indiscriminate and random, with the protesters being fired upon by plain clothes policemen, is a gross and clear violation of the rule of law. To use firearms must be the last resort of law-enforcement officials and not the first point of aggression, and in doing so, the intentions of the state were betrayed – it was done in order to shut down dissent, violating their right to life under Article 21, and the basic and fundamental principles of a democracy with its foundation in the rule of law.

The aftermath of the violence also saw internet services being shutdown in 3 districts, in order to curb the violence and the spread of ‘provocative’ messages, a move that is questionable in its efficacy and instead, further betrays the need of the state government to control dissent. The AHRC stands with the people of Tuticorin and urges the judicial inquiry ordered in the matter to proceed urgently and effectively. The police officials and state government involved in the decision to fire must be held accountable. This incident once again highlights the failed project of police reforms in India and the urgent need to talk about preventing and punishing police violence and ensuring police accountability. The environmental degradation in the region must be dealt with and Vedanta must be punished, and, prevented from continuing to abuse its position and power to violate the fundamental rights of the people in the region.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-027-2018
Countries : India,
Issues : Freedom of assembly, Freedom of expression, Impunity, Police negligence, Police violence, Right to life, Rule of law,