The protests in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, where police opened fire.
Photo: AP

Apparently, police needed to kill 11 people before the Indian courts could take appropriate action to halt the expansion of a copper smelter in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, along the southeastern coast of India.

The Madras High Court, the highest court in the state of Tamil Nadu, ruled Wednesday that ongoing construction of a second unit within a copper smelting facility in Thoothukudi owned by Vedanta Resources must halt until authorities hold a public hearing, reports Reuters, with the application for environmental clearance finalized (or not) by September 23. This court decision comes a day after police officers shot at a group of around 20,000 people protesting the copper plant, killing at least 11 (including two women and a teen) and seriously injuring another 20.

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The ruling read, per The New Indian Express:

In issuing the above directions, we believe that we have taken into account and balanced the interests of all parties before us—the public as well as Vedanta. While, on the one hand, the economic benefits of encouraging industries cannot be ignored, the toll extracted on available resources, water, and soil regimes by such industries, cannot also be lost sight of. There is thus yet another stakeholder before us, one that is invisible in the array of parties: the environment in itself. In balancing the interests of all parties to this Public Interest Litigation, we believe that the interests of this hapless party be treated on par, if not paramount.

Protests have been going strong for the past three months as Vedanta Resources, a London-based mining company, moved forward with plans to expand its plant. The company’s Thoothukudi-based copper smelter produces more than 400,000 tonnes of copper in a year, and it also runs a refinery and three power plants in the city. The company wants to double that production to 800,000 tonnes of copper by expanding its current copper smelter. But the current plant has been closed for more than 50 days—and will remain shuttered until at least June 6, the date of the company’s next hearing with the state pollution board—due to “alleged noncompliance with environmental rules,” according to The Guardian.

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Opponents say the copper industry has taken a serious toll on the environment and their health. Respiratory issues (like infections and asthmatic bronchitis) were higher in communities near the plant than those farther, according to a 2008 report from the Department of Community Medicine at Tirunelveli Medical College in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Locals accuse Vedanta’s operations of degrading their groundwater, their air, and ultimately their health. They turned it up a notch Tuesday when protesters rushed into a district government headquarters in Thoothukudi, torched up vehicles, and threw rocks at police barricades. That’s when police began shooting.

Parliament member Rahul Gandhi, who’s also the president of the Indian National Congress, an opposing party to the current government, wrote this on Twitter:

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While this police behavior might surprise some, Vedanta’s actions with regards to this smelter shouldn’t. The company’s faced scrutiny in India before, reports Reuters—back in 1996 for breaking environmental laws, and again in 2013 over complaints of noxious gas leaking.

Some things just never change.

Update 5/29/18: Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Edappadi Palaniswami ordered the copper smelter to permanently close Monday, reports Reuters. The number of dead increased to 13 in the days after this post was published.

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“We have taken a decision to permanently shut down the plant and today issued government orders to do the same,” said Palaniswami, in a statement. Plant owner Vedanta said it is looking at “the future course of action,” per Reuters.

[h/t The Guardian, Reuters]