It was with growing alarm that an employee of Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, watched an angry mob gather outside his home on Tuesday. He lives with his family in a Sterlite township near the district collector’s office. The township, called Tamira-II, comprises six multi-storied apartment buildings that house over a hundred employees of the company. The worker and his family watched from their window as thousands of protestors marched towards the collectorate. Suddenly, a group of men ran towards the township, climbing over its iron gates, and pelting stones and petrol bombs.

“We started panicking,” said the employee. “The protestors came inside and started throwing stones at our quarters. They smashed window panes, felled electric poles and set our vehicles on fire.”

Flames from the burning cars were soon licking the buildings, billowing smoke into the apartments. Starting to suffocate – particularly children and the elderly – many residents climbed up to the rooftops, only to be pelted with stones. “It was terrible,” said the employee. “Some of the guards also ran for cover at this point, so there was no one to save us.”

The Sterlite workers staying in Tamira-II knew that protestors planned to march to the collectorate that day. Culminating a 100-day peaceful protest, they wanted to convey to the collector their opposition to the proposed expansion of the copper smelter run by Sterlite, a subsidiary of the mining and metals giant Vedanta, at the edge of Thoothukudi town. The townsfolk claim the smelter is contaminating their air and water. But when the police barricaded their path to the collectorate, the protestors allegedly turned violent, overturning police vans and setting ablaze some cars at the collectorate. The police opened fire, killing 13 people, some of whom were bystanders.

The Sterlite employees said they had also seen “threatening messages” on social media which implied that their company would be attacked by the protestors. As such none of them had gone to work that day. “But we never thought the situation would escalate this way,” said another employee who lives in the township. “When we saw about 200 people with painted faces and carrying long knives burst inside the township, we thought we would never get out alive.”

The employees were not clear about whether the protestors attacked their township before or after the police opened fire.

The township house over a hundred employees of Sterlite Copper. Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan

‘We felt helpless’

On Friday, the township was deserted save for a few policemen and security guards sitting near the main gate. Shattered glass lay strewn across pathways. In the parking lots lay the charred remains of 27 cars and 14 two-wheelers. Sixteen other vehicles were damaged and some overturned. Sections of the buildings were blackened from the fires, including the ground landings.

The protestors apparently also destroyed many of the security cameras installed in the township before lighting the fires. The attack was clearly planned, the residents alleged. The attackers were divided into three groups; one to destroy the cameras, another to burn the cars and the third to throw stones and petrol bombs. The security guards claimed the protestors threatened to kill them if they didn’t leave. At least 10 policemen had been deployed at the township in view of the march, but they ran away when the protestors barged in. The residents called the emergency services. A police contingent and fire tenders were sent but they did not reach for nearly an hour as the roads were blocked. “It was not possible for us to come out of the building as the cars were burning close to the stairs,” said the first employee. “It was very difficult to even breathe. We felt helpless.”

Some families were too petrified to open their doors even when the rescue teams arrived. “It was a pathetic situation,” said the second employee. “When we entered some houses, we found old people huddled up in bathrooms. Some were too terrified to even speak.”

By late afternoon, most of the employees and their families were evacuated and put up in a hotel in the town. They have since been moved to neighbouring Maduri and Tirunelveli districts. “Some new employees from Uttar Pradesh came back later, packed their things and left for their homes,” said the first employee who is among the few still at the township. “They said they were tired of the agitation and wanted to quit. We are waiting for the management to take a call on whether it is safe for the others to return to the township.”

'Flames from the burning cars soon licked the buildings, billowing smoke into the apartments'. Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan

‘Funded from abroad’

The agitation against Sterlite’s smelter has been intermittently going on for nearly two decades. But the latest phase began early this year when rumours spread that the proposed new plant would cause four times as much pollution as the existing one, a third employee claimed. “Since 2013, as technology has improved tremendously, we have become a zero discharge plant,” he said. Claiming the plant’s emissions were within the limit laid down by the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board, he added, “Agitators imagine this plant as it was a long time ago.”

He also alleged that while the latest agitation was started by the local people, it was seized by activists such as Fatima Babu, who has been opposing the plant for years, and organisations such as Foil Vedanta and Makkal Athikaram. It was then, the third employee claimed, that he felt the agitation would turn violent. “But we were still sure that with Section 144 imposed, things would be in order,” he said. “We had also been assured by the government that the situation would be kept under control. But on that day, the police took a lot of time responding. I could sense a feeling of helplessness on their part when we contacted them. Had vigilance been proper, better counter and mitigating actions could have been taken.”

Many Sterlite workers said they were shocked to learn that the police had shot down the protestors. They said they were trying to reach out to families of the victims and offer help. “The police firing and the loss of life is very saddening,” said the first employee. “We don’t know how a peaceful protest turned violent. This would not have happened if the agitation had been handled carefully.”

Some of the employees, however, alleged they had evidence that the agitation was funded from abroad, but refused to share details. “The intention was to create havoc, pain,” said the third employee. “They wanted to show they could create chaos and dominate the situation. But this part of the story is not apparent to many people.”