Chennai: Women protest against the government after police opened fire at demonstrators calling for the closure of a copper smelter.—Reuters
Chennai: Women protest against the government after police opened fire at demonstrators calling for the closure of a copper smelter.—Reuters

NEW DELHI: Indian police on Tuesday killed 12 demonstrators after opening fire on thousands of people demanding the closure of a copper factory due to pollution concerns, a police officer said.

Protesters rampaged for hours in the southern state of Tamil Nadu calling for the closure of the plant owned by British-based mining giant Vedanta Resources.

“We have confirmation of 12 people being killed in police firing. We fear the toll may rise,” the officer said from the state capital Chennai. An unknown number of protesters were injured in the skirmishes, he said.

Some 20 police were also injured in the clashes in Tuticorin, about 600 kilometres south of Chennai. The shootings caused immediate outrage. Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, said it was “state sponsored terrorism”.

Protesters stormed the office of the top local administrator and set it ablaze after they were denied permission to hold a rally at the smelting plant.

The police officer said efforts to disperse the 5,000 strong rock-throwing group through a baton charge and tear gas volleys failed. Police then fired live ammunition, he added.

Another officer said more than 110 vehicles were burnt during the disturbances that lasted nearly four hours.

Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami ordered an inquiry into the shootings but defended the police.

“The police had to take action under unavoidable circumstances to protect public life and property as the protesters resorted to repeated violence...police had to control the violence,” he said in a statement.

The families of each victim would be offered one million rupees ($14,700) compensation, he added. Residents have been protesting for months against the plant run by a Vedanta subsidiary, Sterlite Copper.

Environmentalists and locals allege the plant is contaminating water resources, a charge denied by the company.

The protests have intensified after Vedanta, owned by an Indian billionaire but with its head office in London, sought to expand the plant. The plant — which is currently non-operational — has a 400,000-tonne annual capacity.

It was shut briefly after an alleged gas leak in March 2013 that left hundreds with breathing difficulties, nausea and throat infections. India’s federal green court allowed it to be reopened.

The company maintains that it adheres to environmental standards and accused vested interests of spreading “false propaganda” about its operations.

Tamil Nadu is one of India’s most industrialised and prosperous states and similar protests over environmental concerns have turned deadly.

Tuticorin witnessed violent demonstrations in 2012 over a nuclear power plant in neighbouring Kudankulam district that left one person dead.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2018

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