IN 1992, the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation allotted 200 hectares in coastal Ratnagiri to Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd to set up a copper smelting plant. The Rs.700-crore plant proposed to produce 60,000 tonnes of copper a year. There was an immediate outcry to this from the people of Ratnagiri. The economy of Ratnagiri is largely dependent on agriculture, horticulture and fishing. The famed Alphonso mangoes, which grow in this coastal strip, are sensitive to environmental disturbances. Cashew and coconut are other high-yielding economic staples for the farmer here.
Although farmers and other local people had no scientific facts at hand in the initial days, they knew from the basic inquiries they had made that an industrial operation of this size would spell disaster for their livelihood earnings, health and way of life. For instance, they found out that there were plans to construct a jetty. For this, a breakwater would also have to be constructed. This would alter the local water currents and disrupt fishing activities. Small indications of what their future could be like increased their natural apprehensions about the potential effects of water, air and soil pollution on their orchards, the sea and their own health and made local protesters bond with each other. Local panchayats decided to organise systematic and persistent protests.A year of agitation
After about a year of agitation, the government was forced to appoint a committee to investigate the potential environmental hazards of the smelter. It was headed by Rashmi Mayur of the Urban Development Institute in Mumbai. While the researchers collected field data for the report, work started on the smelter site. The company had started constructing sheds to accommodate its workers and begun surveying some of the land it had acquired near Ratnagiri town.
The plot where the smelter was to be built came under Sheregaon panchayat. By this time, because of the research activities of the committee, people were aware of the potential for disaster and were doubly sure they did not want the smelter in their backyard. Health issues were at the forefront of their concerns: a copper smelter of the production capacity proposed by Sterlite would spew out sulphur dioxide and cadmium, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals at way beyond acceptable levels. These would ultimately be deposited on soil or water where they would persist in the environment. Feelings were running high by this time because the company was steadily building on its land and continuing to acquire more. People felt that they and their protests were not being taken seriously.
The panchayat denied the company permission to carry out any construction, but the state stepped in and said that the right rested with an authority higher than the panchayat. Sterlite continued construction. On December 13, 1993, more than 20,000 people stormed Sterlite’s land and demolished most of the buildings constructed there. The District Collector was forced to step in and issue a notice telling the company to stop work. Sterlite was not cowed down; it filed a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the notice.
Meanwhile, people armed themselves with the environmental report. The planned location for the jetty was already in a fragile state because of heavy erosion. The preliminary report said that the jetty would increase the wave action and further erode the coast to the point where a small inhabited outcrop of land would be isolated from the coastline and possibly go under water too. It said that the pollution would definitely affect the human, agricultural and general environmental health of the region. There were strong chances of high doses of iron, far above the permissible range, seeping into the groundwater. The sulphur dioxide the factory would regularly emit could result in chronic respiratory diseases, skin problems and diseases of the ear, nose and throat. The risk of all this happening would increase because the company was planning to set up an auxiliary plant necessary for the smelter, which would produce 12,000 tonnes of sulphuric acid a day and annually discharge about 300 tonnes of the acid. In essence, the report said that the copper plant would destroy the region’s fragile coastal environment and should not be allowed. In 1997, Sterlite shifted to Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu.
Although the economy of Ratnagiri is largely agricultural, there are industries in the region too. During the protests, the local people were careful to maintain that they were not anti-industry but just against polluting industries. The initial approach of the protesters was conventional: gathering in groups outside the proposed site, heckling workers and sending memorandums to the Collector’s office. As momentum grew and there was no response from the company or the government, so did their realisation that this could be a long-drawn-out affair. This is where their united opposition paid off. Everyone was drawn into the battle: farmers, panchayat members, local journalists and even children, who were told to keep an eye open and report any activity of the company while playing and wandering around the countryside.
While the environmental report provided the coup de grace , it is generally agreed that the united and strong opposition of the local people is what ultimately halted the project.