When our plane touched down Tuticorin on May 24, it seemed nothing was amiss. Tuticorin came across as another sleepy little town, bearing little signs of the mayhem that struck it two days earlier when 13 people demanding the closure of a copper smelter owned by Vedanta Resources were killed.
The district quickly earned parallels with “Independent India’s General Dyer moment”, a reference to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in which British troops fired into a crowd of Indians almost 100 years ago.
The Tuticorin airport is so quaint that it could feature in a Wes Anderson film. Passengers get off the plane and walk 100 meters across the tarmac to a tiny arrival hall and receive checked-in baggage brought in by hand. When my video journalist and I stepped out, I called one of our stringers, to find out that the 13th protester had succumbed to his injuries.
Before we got on the plane, we received word from fellow journalists on SMS — internet had been blocked across three districts — that no shops or restaurants were open. A district-wide lockdown had entered its third day, and reporters on the field were surviving on water and barely a meal at the end of the day. That is, if the hotels they checked into were well stocked.
“Things are alright today; there are no protests,” our driver, Velu, told us, as we made our way to the district collectorate. “Things weren’t looking good yesterday, and the day before was worse. Now that the injured are in hospitals, there are other things to worry about — like medicines and treatment,” he said.
At the collectorate, newly appointed district collector Sandeep Nanduri arrived for his first day at work. Nanduri seemed ready to face the media glare. Tough questions were inevitable. Tamil Nadu, after all, has a history of less-than-desirable information dissemination.
For two days, the state government had not released an official press statement on how many protesters had been killed, and journalists were relying primarily on information from local doctors. “I have just joined and you are watching me walk in to office,” Nanduri told us. “You will hear from me by the evening.”
We then asked Nanduri who passed the shooting order. He played that with a straight bat as well. “There is a single-member probe panel constituted to look into the incident. I cannot comment while the probe is on.”
With nothing more to gather, we began driving to the Tuticorin General Hospital. En route, we passed the Tuticorin-Madurai Bypass, which saw the second shooting. Bloodstained roads, charred vehicles and broken signboards were a grim reminder of the violence. We promptly stopped and began recording.
On meeting survivors who recounted their ordeal, we spent the next two days chronicling eyewitness accounts of all that transpired, hearing stories of illness, government non-cooperation and a people's movement that lasted 100 days — all because Tuticorin decided that they would have none of Vedanta’s plans to expand the capacity of the Sterlite Copper plant citing air and water pollution.
“The police began shooting at us without warning,” said Krishnakumari, whose son Raja Singh was on a hospital bed next to her, bullet injuries along his shin. “They set fire to their own vehicles and claimed we did it; they then climbed onto the trucks that weren’t on fire and began shooting at us from above.”
There were some survivors who were less interested in reliving the ordeal. “All we want is for Vedanta to leave our town,” said Clinton, a fisherman who participated in the protests.
“We aren’t protesting for ourselves alone; this is for our families and our future generations. Sterlite Copper must shut.”
Counting The Losses
Outside the hospital, crowds had gathered in large numbers, many without an inkling of what became of their loved ones who joined the protests. Some said their friends, sons and brothers who hadn’t joined the protests had been detained by the police for apparent violations of Section 144, a curfew which prohibits meetings of more than five persons, that had been imposed.
“My friend Karthik has been missing since yesterday,” a distraught Suresh told me outside the hospital, “We were finishing off our shift at the Tuticorin Port and returning to the city when policemen descended on us, yanked him off his bike, landed a couple of blows and took him away.”
The collectorate later informed us that cases were filed against 68 protesters under various sections of the Indian Penal Code.
When reporting from a town where your broadcast equipment (LIVE Units that work on 3G/4G technology) does not work, you walk a fine line between getting more information, and relaying your information back to the news centre early enough for it to stay contextual.
Doing the latter meant a 78-kilometre drive to Virudhunagar, along the national highway, for telecommunications to work. We made that trip on both days, scurrying to meet editorial deadlines.
On May 28, The Tamil Nadu government endorsed the state pollution control board’s recommendation to close Sterlite Copper permanently even as Vedanta waited for its consent to operate. The district administration went a step ahead and cut off power to Sterlite Copper on May 24 itself, promptly returning to seal the plant.
Watching the action unfold on TV, back in Chennai, we couldn’t help wonder if this was really the end of Tuticorin’s struggle with Sterlite. After all, the legal route is always available, and Vedanta might actively consider using it.But small victories do count, and the sight of Nanduri laying a seal on the plant, brought some semblance of closure — not only for protesters but also journalists who staved off the heat, hunger and telecom jam, to send home a story.