Smoke billows out of burning vehicles after a violent protest demanding closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit entered the 100th day, in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu on Tuesday. Image Credit: PTI

Toothukudi, Tamil Nadu: Nine people, including a girl, died on Tuesday after police opened fire during the ongoing protests against the Sterlite Copper company.

The demonstations had turned violent, with thousands of people from nearby areas allegedly attacking the District Collectorate demanding closure of the Vedanta Group-run entity.

In the first major incident of police firing in Tamil Nadu on protesters and resultant deaths, they first fired tear gas shells and carried out baton charges to bring the protesters under control but passions were high.

Police then resorted to firing as thousands of people gathered in defiance of prohibitory orders on the 100th day of their agitation ever since the company announced the expansion plans of the 400,000-tonne per annum Sterlite Copper project and attacked the Collectorate.

The area around the Collectorate resembled a battle-zone with the protesters setting vehicles afire and attacking policemen with stones. Plumes of black smoke emanated from the protest site. Police retaliated in a bid to bring the situation under control.

Among those who died were identified as Antony Selvaraj, Kandiah, Gladson, Jayaram, Maniraj, Tamilarasan, Shanmugham and Venista. At least 60 people, including policemen and journalists covering the protests, were injured in the clashes. Many of them were admitted to hospitals for treatment as their condition was serious.

Among the injured was a 16-year-old schoolgirl who was waiting for her bus when she was hit by a bullet.

Opposition parties squarely blamed the State government for the deaths with one of them even demanding the resignation of Chief Minister E. Palaniswamy, who appealed to the people for calm.

The Chief Minister, who held a meeting with his ministerial colleagues and top police officials including DGP T.K. Rajendran, said action would be taken against the company.

In a statement, the state government said it would respect the wishes of the people and necessary action in the matter. It said around 20,000 people took out a rally against the company and became violent by attacking police and burning police vehicles while storming the Collector’s office. As police could not control the crowd, they resorted to a few actions, it said.

The statement said the government will take all legal steps in the matter and asked the people to maintain peace. Police from neighbouring districts of Madurai and Virudhunagar was rushed to Thoothukudi to bring the situation under control.

According to a police officer on the spot, police swung into action when the protesters torched some vehicles in the area. When tear gas shells and the baton charge failed to disperse the mob, police opened fire to control the situation.

The protesters alleged that police had used force without provocation on the peaceful gathering.

People in Toothukudi are demanding the closure of Sterlite copper smelting plant alleging that it was polluting the area, and leading to severe health problems among the residents of the locality, besides depleting the water table.

Social activists have also joined the protests against the company. Heavy police deployment could be seen in Toothukudi and surrounding areas of the coastal city.

Condemning the state government for the police firing that claimed many lives, DMK Working President M.K. Stalin said that police was committing atrocities. Other political leaders have also slammed police and the state government.

Actors Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, who recently announced their entry into politics, have also expressed solidarity with the protesters. The TN government must take action over the concerns expressed by the protesters, they said.

“The expansion [of Sterlite Copper] should not at all be allowed. If possible, it will be good to close down the [existing] unit,” Makkal Neethi Mayyam chief Kamal Haasan said. He said there was no point in putting up a plant near residential and agricultural zone.

Rajinikanth, who had some time ago tweeted on the Sterlite protests, said: “One can’t understand why the government, which gave the nod for the plant, is not taking any action and is just watching.”

Tamil Nadu Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar told reporters in Chennai that the loss of lives was unfortunate in a state known for peace.

The Tamil Nadu government also issued a statement in which stated that Sterlite plant was functioning in the state for over 20 years and in 2013 then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had ordered the closure of factory after people complained of irritation in their eyes due to emissions from the project.

It said in March this year, the company had applied for removal of consent to operate (CTO) for its existing smelter plant. The application has been rejected for want of more clarifications after the state pollution control board found that the factory had not fulfilled some of the major factors including non-submission of a detailed groundwater analysis, action not taken to dispose waste and not building a compound wall to arrest water mixing in the nearby river.