At least nine people were killed and many more were injured in the coastal town of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu on Tuesday when a protest by local residents against the expansion of the Vedanta Group’s Sterlite Copper plant in the area turned violent, prompting the police to open fire. Residents claim that the factory is contaminating the region’s air and water resources.

On Tuesday evening, the Tamil Nadu government released a list of nine people who were killed. But in a condolence message, state Governor Banwarilal Purohit expressed grief at the death of 11 people.

Thousands of local residents participated in Tuesday’s protests, which turned violent after the police barricaded the route to the Collector’s office. Video footage broadcast by regional television channels show police shooters firing into the distance from atop police vans.

According to PTI, a statement issued by the E Palanisamy-led state government said that the police had no choice but to use force against the protesters. “The mob resorted to violence, set on fire police vehicles and those parked at the Collectorate and pelted stones at the collector’s office,” it said. “To bring the violence under control, under unavoidable circumstances, police had to take action.”

At the end of the day, several protestors had gone into hiding in the town. “What crime did we do to be shot at?” asked Selva Raj, one of the protestors. “Does a private company really need to be given such protection?”

Pollution concerns

Tuesday marked the 100th day of a protest that started in February. Residents are demanding that the copper smelter be shut down because of pollution concerns. The plant, set up in 1996, lies at the edge of Tuticorin town, near Kumareddyarpuram village. It has the capacity to produce 1,200 tonnes of copper anodes per day. Sterlite – the copper unit of Vedanta, one of the world’s largest mining and metals conglomerates – plans to nearly double the plant’s existing capacity. If it goes through, the plant will spill over into a densely populated area.

According to the project’s Environment Impact Assessment report from 2015, over 4.6 lakh people live in eight towns and 27 villages within a 10-km radius of the plant . Its main pollutants are sulphur dioxide and particulate matter, said the report.

For over two decades now, local residents and activists have complained that the plant has been contaminating the air and water in the area, and has violated environmental laws. Villagers say that they did not realise the effects of these pollutants for several years and began to view the copper smelter as the cause of several of their ailments only recently. “In every household of our village, at least a couple of people are suffering from some kind of illness,” Selva Raj had told last month. “Children are the worst affected.”

Planned protest

The protests began when the residents of Kumareddyarpuram village first found out about Sterlite’s ambitious expansion plan. Their small-scale demonstrations soon grew into a massive protest. On March 24, thousands of residents thronged the streets of Tuticorin, demanding that the plant be closed.

Around a month ago, the protestors announced their intention to surround the Collector’s office to press for their demand. “We did not want any violence,” said Selva Raj, who is from Kumareddyarpuram village. “We just wanted to meet the Collector.”

In response, the Collector announced a peace meeting that was held with a section of protesters on May 20. “But we did not want any peace meeting,” said Sundaramoorthy, also from Kumareddyarpuram village. “We just wanted the company to be shut.”

Despite Sunday’s meeting, the protestors decided to go ahead with a massive protest they had planned for Tuesday. They were given permission to assemble on a ground next to the old bus stand in Tuticorin between 9 am and 5 pm, according to local residents.

On Monday, the Collector reportedly announced that prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure – which bans the assembly of more than four people in an area – had been imposed in the regions that fall under the jurisdiction of the town’s SIPCOT police station and the South Police Station. But that did not stop the protestors from heading out to participate in Tuesday’s protest.

“For at least 10 km from the Collectorate, the road was packed with people, even children,” said Jude V, a resident of Tuticorin who has been objecting to the plant for several years.

The police set up barricades at several points to prevented the protesters from heading towards the Collectorate. “At one point, we had all gathered behind the barriers, and the police let loose a cow into our midst,” said Jude. “This was when people started to get angry, pushed the barricades and started throwing stones at the police.” A police van was overturned and several vehicles were also set on fire.

As the angry crowd moved closer to the Collectorate, the police fired a round of bullets, said the protesters. Four men and one woman died in the first round of firing, said Sundaramoorthy. Photographs of the victims circulated on social media seemed to show that the victims had been shot above the abdomen. Video footage broadcast by Tamil television channel Puthiya Thalaimurai showed police commandos shooting at targets from the top of a police van.

Fear in Tuticorin

Officials at the Tuticorin police headquarters said they were “too busy” to confirm any details about the violence. Senior police officers and the Collector were also unavailable for comment.

After the firing, the protesters scattered and several of them are now hiding in the homes of their friends. People said that there is heavy police presence in each street. “We are scared to step out now, what if the cops shoot at us?” said Selva Raj. “We are hearing that the police is still shooting at people.”

In the evening, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Palanisamy said a retired High Court judge would investigate the incident. A solatium of Rs 10 lakh was announced for the families of the dead.