Protests against Thoothukudi smelter have been taking place for more than three months
At least nine people have been killed after police fired at protesters calling for the closure of a copper smelter in southern India.
Residents of the port city of Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu state, alongside environmentalists, have been demonstrating against one of India’s biggest copper plants for more than three months, alleging it is a major source of pollution and a risk to fisheries.
The plant’s owner, the London-based Vedanta Resources, is one of the world’s largest mining companies.
Tuesday’s protest turned violent when a crowd waving black flags stormed the district government headquarters and an apartment block for Vedanta employees, said a company official, who declined to be named for fear of being targeted.
Protesters set vehicles on fire and threw stones at police, prompting them to open fire. Nine people were confirmed dead, said Kapil Kumar Saratkar, a police official.
Rahul Gandhi, the head of the national opposition party Congress, criticised the authorities’ use of deadly force. “The gunning down by the police of nine people in … Tamil Nadu is a brutal example of state sponsored terrorism,” he tweeted.
“These citizens were murdered for protesting against injustice. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of these martyrs and the injured.”
Local TV showed police trying to disperse the crowd with teargas and water cannon. Smoke rose from several areas of Thoothukudi, a quiet port city near the southern tip of the Indian peninsula.
D Jayakumar, a state minister, said in a televised address that police had fired on protesters and that it was “unavoidable”.
The plant, which can produce 400,000 tonnes of copper a year, has been shut for more than 50 days and will remain closed until at least 6 June because the local pollution regulator will not allow it to operate due to alleged non-compliance with environmental rules.
Environmental activists and some local politicians want the government to permanently close the plant. “The inaction of the government has led to the people’s protests, and police resorting to firing to control it. Action should be taken to shut down the plant immediately to address this issue,” said MK Stalin, leader of the main opposition group in Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in a Facebook post.
Vedanta says the protests are based on “false allegations” and that it plans to double capacity at the smelter to 800,000 tonnes per year. “We would like to restart the plant as soon as possible, in a peaceful manner,” said P Ramnath, the chief executive of Vedanta’s copper business.
The plant was shut for more than two months in 2013 by an Indian environmental court after residents complained about emissions.