The Madras High Court bench headed by Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee remarked that the Police firing on unarmed people protesting the copper mining company, Sterlite, in 2018, is a scar on democracy that cannot be forgotten.
The Bench also comprising Justice TS Sivagnanam was hearing a plea to re-open the National Human Right Commission’s (NHRC) investigation into the matter. Bar and Bench quoted the Chief Justice saying, “The incident is of the year 2018. It really has gone out of public mind but there were fifteen or sixteen citizens who lost their lives. That kind of incident should be a scar on the face of our democracy. We should never forget. If there can be something that can be done for families apart from what is done [let us do that]…there has to be closure…our system delays so much that sometimes the entire idea is lost.”
He also reportedly added that if there is the slightest indication that the police firing was on behalf of any corporate body, it must be duly addressed. CJ Sanjib Banerjee said, “We want an answer as to what instigated….what were the circumstances? Without meaning disrespect, yes, the protest may not have been legal or legitimate, but citizens cannot be fired on the behalf of any corporate body…That is very important for the citizens of the State to know,” reported B&B.
The court perused the report prepared by the NHRC, and said that the recommendations made by the human rights body should be implemented by the relevant agencies. The court said, “As indicated in the affidavit filed by the NHRC, the cases against the protesters should be dropped and the institution of the cases should not stand in the way of the future prospects of any of the protesters to disqualify them from any employment or other opportunities that may be available.”
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), represented by the Advocate General, apprised the court that the case pertaining to the firing and subsequent deaths is under investigation. To this, the order read, “The matter should be brought to its logical end, as expeditiously as possible, to give a meaningful closure to the matter and the circumstances in which firing had to be resorted to against unarmed citizens must come out in the report.”
On the issue of compensation to the next of kin of all deceased and injured protestors, the court ruled that the government should consider a realistic quantum for either category. “The State is requested to play the real parental role in providing counselling and psychiatric assistance to the members of the bereaved families, if necessary. The State must be seen to be with the families and not an adversary, despite whatever may have happened. The State needs to walk the extra mile for such purpose and learned Advocate-General is requested to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to assuage the feelings of the families of the victims,” the Bench reportedly said.
The NHRC’s probe report so far was also furnished to the Court in a “sealed cover”. The Court ordered that the same be sent to the Additional Solicitor General’s office, and copies of the same are to be circulated to the petitioner and the State.
Over 20,000 people had been demonstrating against the groundwater pollution caused by the Sterlite copper plant in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district. On the 50th day of the protest, at least 13 people were killed and several were injured when the police opened fire at the group between May 22 and 23, 2018. The same Sterlite copper plant resurfaced in the news during the second wave of the pandemic when Vedanta filed a petition before the Supreme Court requesting that its copper-smelting plants be opened so it can help with oxygen production for the acute scarcity in the country. However, local residents, who previously suffered from the company’s alleged flouting of environmental norms, warned the Tamil Nadu government on April 24, 2021 that they opposed the reopening.
The matter will now come up for hearing on October 25, 2021.
The order may be read here: