A new approach to environmental activism

IANS, December 31, 2022

There seems to be a change in the approach of the government authorities both at the Centre and states and the people against sundry environmentalists, foreign-funded activists, and agenda-driven locals threatening to sabotage India’s growth story by stalling projects of national importance in 2022. The latest example was putting an end to the protest movement against the construction of the Vizhinjam International Seaport in Kerala by the Adani group.

The 140-day protest was led by fishermen and backed by the Latin Catholic Church and little-known environmentalists, despite environmental clearances and assurance from experts that the port would not accelerate coastal erosion and reduce fish yields for fishermen. However, when the protesters turned violent and attacked a local police station, the CPI-M-led government in Kerala, which once opposed the project, arrested some church leaders, and the agitation was called off.

Yet, precious time was lost because of police inaction, as has been the case with many other projects. Agitating villagers had forced the abandonment of a 60-million-ton oil refinery at Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, land acquisition issues stalling a nuclear plant with French assistance and the Prime Minister’s pet project, the Bullet Train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, among many others.

These protest movements are very similar to those that led to the closure of the Thoothukudi Sterlite Copper smelting plant in 2018. Delayed action against the protesters led to police firing on a large gathering of agitators who had collected to oppose the plant’s expansion. Protesters demanded the plant’s closure because of air pollution without substantive evidence and ignoring scientific evidence.

That unpopular public opinion against the plant has undergone a sea change by 2022. In 2021, for instance, the plant repurposed its oxygen plant to produce medical-grade oxygen, delivering 2,368 MT of oxygen to 32 districts of Tamil Nadu when the country had closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It also donated 100 oxygen beds, critical care beds and medical equipment to the government hospital in Thoothukudi and masks and sanitisers to 10,000 local families.

Moreover, in the past four years, the company has planted 1.25 lakh trees in Thoothukudi, awarded more than 14,500 scholarships to students and supplied 9.36 million litres of water to water-scare villages of Thoothukudi and empowered 6,000 women with life skills.

Today, the situation on the ground has changed dramatically, with the pro-Sterlite voices gaining far more traction than the anti-Sterlite ones. Hundreds of petitions for reopening the Sterlite Copper plant have been submitted to the collectorate as the local population has realised the importance of the plant on their livelihoods and daily existence. Even those injured in the police firing in 2018 have voiced their support for reopening the Sterlite plant in 2022.

The plant’s shutdown has caused not only a Rs 14,794 crore loss to stakeholders, and net losses of Rs 491 crore to downstream companies but 30,000 direct and indirect jobs have been lost, as per a study by the Jaipur-based Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS), a not-for-profit organisation. The Indian economy, too, suffered a loss of $2 billion, according to studies by CUTS and the government think tank NITI Aayog.

Even the recently held demonstrations by protesters calling for the plant’s permanent closure by submitting a petition to the collectorate and distributing pamphlets in Thoothukudi failed to garner much local support and fizzled out.

Today, people are increasingly realising the importance of national projects and are not easily swayed by the theatrics of the so-called environmentalists.

They understand the need to ensure a delicate balance between the development and conservation of ecology.

The country’s development cannot be held ransom because of the demands of some foreign-funded activists and agenda-driven locals.

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