People, doctors talk of "Sterlite patches" on villagers' skins due to Thoothukudi copper plant pollution: Inquiry team

By Our Representative
An independent team led by former judges of Bombay and Madras High Court, and consisting of former IAS and IPS bureaucrats, academics, journalists and activists, has found that people in Tuticorin district coined a new term -- Sterlite patch -- in order to identify the skin patch they believed was caused by environmental pollution caused by the notorious Sterlite copper smelter unit in the villages surrounding it.
The team -- which visited Tuticorin on June 2-3 in order to investigate the police firing against around 50,000 protesters against Sterlite, on May 22, leading to the death of 15 persons, and it's aftermath -- in its preliminary report has said, "People have cited cases of cancer, lung and breathing related hazards, which they attribute to Sterlite. Similarly, there is, in fact, a kind of ‘skin patch’, which is now notoriously called as Sterlite patch”.
Pointing out that the term Sterlite patch had become so common that even doctors use it at the time of diagnosis, the team found that doctors would ask patients "to leave the region", insisting on the need to have "a focussed health-based study in these villages". It adds, "People shared experiences that when they visit hospitals for cancer testing, the doctors would ask them whether they are from Sterlite region, clearly revealing their knowledge of such cases from the region."
"Some testimonies indicated that prospective grooms demanded health records of women prior to getting into marriage alliance", the team's 5,000-word report says, adding,it observed that "the local authorities have done nothing to organise a detailed health-based study, which could either prove the same or at least be used to allay the fears of the people, if the health hazard theory were not true."
Noting that villagers knew Sterlite was Rs 100 crore by the Supreme Court for polluting the environment, the report says, "For villagers, clearly, environment pollution means immediate health concerns to them. It is about life and death of villagers." It adds, people also cited "how every successful order against Sterlite got overruled subsequently. They suspect that money is playing a significant role."
The 23-person team, which called itself Coordinating Committee for People’s Inquest into Thoothukudi Police Firing, visited Thoothukudi and its suburbs. Those who were it's members included Justices (Retd) BG Kolse Patil and Hariparanthaman of Bombay and Madras High Courts respectively, former Haryana chief secretary MG Devasahayam, former Tamil Nadu additional chief secretary Christudoss Gandhi, former Gujarat DGP RB Sreekumar, top sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, forensic medicine expert Dr K Mathiharan, and others.
The team notes that Sterlite Copper started its operations in Tamil Nadu in 1996, and though it continued its "malpractices for many years", in "2013 the company was found releasing excessive sulphur dioxide". It adds, as a result, "many people who were living in the nearby area of the plant complained of health issues and even some women had miscarriage due to gas leakage."
The team regrets, "The Tamil Nadu Pollution Board has been really supportive of the Sterlite Copper action", and ordered the company to shut down only "for two and half months", adding, though it "set up an inquiry on the company", the National Green Tribunal "allowed the factory to resume production in 2013."
Pointing out that the May 22 protest was not an isolated event, the report says, "In February 2018, the anti-Sterlite movement gained momentum and on March 24, 2018, mobilized around 2 lakh people for protest. In March 2018, the plant was shut down for 15 days due to maintenance as the plant owners wanted to expand the capacity of the plant. The plant was not granted operating license beyond March 2018, due to non-compliance with environmental regulations."

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