21, May 2019 | Sushmita
In a damning indictment of the State’s lack of compassion for victims and survivors of May 22, 2018 Tuticorin massacre, a new report by a human rights organisation has found that not only was the compensation inadequate, but that there was also a lack of accountability by multiple agencies looking into the matter. The report also shows instances of state negligence, inaction and unwillingness to to follow up investigations.
People’s Watch, a human rights organisation which was part of the People’s Inquest comprising eminent civil society members, formed in the aftermath of the incident has observed in its report titled “A Year After Thoothukudi Burned” the inadequacy of compensation and employment promised in the aftermath of the massacre where 16 people were killed and several others injured grievously. The report also draws attention to the lack of accountability on the part of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Tamil Nadu (TN) Government and the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Committee.
CJP stands with the innocents killed in Tuticorin, their families, and their community. In the past, CJP has written to the NHRC highlighting police excesses and has actively campaigned against it. Help us combat police brutality against peaceful protesters by donating here.
The report discusses the nature of the jobs and compensation that the victims and survivors’ families were promised, lack of accountability. The report starts by saying, “What is more disturbing is that there is no information if there is any action contemplated or initiated by the Government of Tamil Nadu against the senior revenue and police officials in Thoothukudi.”
Brief Background of the anti-Sterlite protest
The attack on protesters in the town of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), an incident that has been likened to the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, had resulted in the death of at least 16 protesters.
May 22, 2018 had marked 100 days of protests against the Sterlite Copper plant, known as Sterlite Industrial India Ltd., a unit of the Vedanta group that has setup a smelter, refinery, acid plant, and copper road plant on the land allocated to it by the State Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu. Earlier, the People’s Inquest report had observed that health concerns played a role in galvanising people against the plant. People had reported cases of cancer, lung and breathing-related ailments that they attributed to Sterlite. The hugely successful protest was attended by nearly 50,000 people. The protests had gained massive momentum, with close to two lakh people gathering in the month of March for this very purpose. On May 22, the protesters marched towards the office of the District Collectorate, demanding the closure of the plant. The police fired into the crowd, and by the evening 11 people had been killed. In the subsequent days, five more people were killed, one of them allegedly because of police torture.
Several citizens of the country reacted with outrage to this incident, with a former bureaucrat writing to the PM, and numerous prominent citizens issuing statements condemning it. Citizens also stepped in to ensure accountability and a People’s Inquest was organised by a team comprising former judges, ex-bureaucrats, professors, journalists and activists, including retired Judge B.G. Kolse Patil, retired IAS officer M.G. Devasahayam, Professor Shiv Visvanathan, and senior journalist. Pamela Philipose, among others.
A Year After Thoothukudi Burned: Report by People’s Watch
Defining the objective of the report, “This report by People’s Watch is therefore an attempt to speak on behalf of the people of Thoothukudi and share the developments in Thoothukudi after May 22.”
The team met the families of all the deceased and a section from among the injured people (who wished still to speak).
Though the Tamil Nadu government had sanctioned financial assistance of Rs 20 lakh each for the family of deceased persons, Rs five lakh each for the severely injured and Rs 1.5 lakh each for other injured persons, the family of the deceased felt that “compensation is no justice and at best is only an ex-gratia payment to the victims and survivors of the horrifying acts of the State on May 22 and the following days”, noted the report.
While some families considered “donating” the compensation to a public trust, one of the families rejected the compensation because of their “political conviction” saying that money alone cannot buy justice and what they want is legal justice”.
Moreover, the compensation amount was found to be “grossly inadequate” as in several cases, as per the report, more money was required for the medical expenses in the private hospitals for attending their respective cases.
Regarding the promises of employment, the report highlighted a grave issue in the nature of jobs that were offered to the survivors in the families. The Tamil Nadu government had promised that it will provide employment to one of the family members of the deceased. Though all the families of the deceased, barring two, confirmed that they were employed in the government services, the nature of appointment was of the bare minimum level with no scope for promotions. Most people, despite their different training and education, were appointed as “Thalayari” or a village assistant, whose role is to assist the Village administrative officer (VAO) in the tasks and their monthly salary is around Rs 12,000. The minimum education required for this position is SSLC (Class 10th). The report said that in the absence of a needs’ assessment, “employment announcement is merely a tool to ridicule the survivors.”
The questions around Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Committee
In the aftermath of the incident a Commission of Inquiry under Justice Aruna Jagadeesan was set up. Questioning the functioning of the Commission, the report observed, “There are genuine questions about why the Commission has not found the reasons for the absence of the District Collector on 22.5.2018, although orders under Section 144 CrPC were promulgated.” It added, “There are also questions about why the Commission is not in possession of the ‘ballistic report’ which would shed much light on the police firing incident.” Most importantly, the Commission which was supposed to conclude its inquiry within three months of its appointment, has not, even after an year, examined statements from more than 600 persons, it added.
Role of NHRC
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) which was looking into this case concluded on October 25, 2018, “Since adequate compensation has been paid to the victims and appropriate steps have been taken by the State Government to bring law and order situation under control, and the Judicial Commission is already looking into the angle of use of force/police excesses, if any, no further intervention in the matter is required.”
Lethargy on CBI’s part
The Madurai Bench of Madras High Court ordered for inquiry by the Central Bureau of
Investigation (CBI) on August 14, 2018 into the incidents of police firing in Thoothukudi on May 22, 2018. The court ordered that the investigation should be complete by 4 months. Only after the transfer of this case, the harassment by police in Thoothukudi stopped. The report noted that the people who were hoping for respite from police harassment and inquiry by CBI into the same, were disappointed to say the least.
The report can be accessed here:
- The Government of Tamil Nadu to ensure urgently that those families of deceased and injured, who have not yet been provided with employment should immediately be provided with the same. Moreover, all the other cases where people have been appointed as ‘Thalayris’ need to be urgently reviewed and provided with adequate and suitable employment commensurate with their education and training. The basic designation that of a junior assistant. In addition, in each of those families from the deceased having individuals eligible for old age pension, the District administration should ensure that they are all immediately included in the scheme
- The TN government needs to urgently undertake a case by case reassessment of the financial support provided to those grievously injured.
- The TN government should order an immediate medical assessment to be conducted by an independent team of qualified and experienced doctors, including specialists from outside Thoothukudi. The severely injured should have the right to have their own representative (competent NGO, lawyer or a trade union leader) accompanying them during this reassessment of their individuals cases.
- All the severely injured people should be allowed to appear before the team of doctors, irrespective of whether they underwent treatment in government or private hospitals. The government should allow all the accused to produce all their past medical records without any fear of reprisals even in case they underwent treatment at private hospitals
- Ex-gratia payment and adequate and suitable employment to a family member of the 16h deceased who died due to police torture as per the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission of Inquiry
- The TN government in all such cases should ensure that the families are urgently made eligible and allowed to apply for accommodation under existing government schemes and their applications should be responded without any delay
- The TN government should therefore take care of the costs for children and youth from the families of the deceased and grievously injured to continue their school and high education in the university and elsewhere in subjects and institutions of their own choice.
- The TN government immediately takes steps to ensure that all programs undertaken by Sterlite under its CSR are carried out only after due information to the District administration so as to ensure that they are not in any way to function against established practices in business and human rights.
- The Chief Minister of TN should visit Thoothukudi on the first anniversary of the Thoothukudi killings on May 22, pay respect to the families of the deceased and tender a public apology for the impunity that continues and the fact that the Commission of Enquiry appointed by his Government is yet to even complete one third of its task. This public apology should be according to the UN Principles of Victims’ Rights and he should therefore assure the people of Thoothukudi that these kinds of violations will never be repeated under any circumstances by the Government of Tamil Nadu in future
- The NHRC should therefore acknowledge the severity of this case and assess itself whether ‘normalcy has returned in Thoothukudi’. It should rehear the victims who had deposed to its investigation team in June 2018 and reopen the case and ensure that it is heard by a full bench of the NHRC in a full court allowing legal representation on behalf of the complainants. The NHRC should comply with all existing international standards on human rights, human rights defenders and business and human rights and, acknowledge its roles and responsibilities within the same.
- The Tamil Nadu State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) which had undertaken an enquiry and came out of with a report concerning illegal detention of children in a police firing range, should immediately make its report public.
- The TN government should take efforts to ensure that the Commission completes its mandate within the next three months with additional staff being provided. Otherwise the appointment of this Commission also will become another mockery of the institution of seeking truth and justice.
- The CBI should take all steps to ensure that investigation is completed and the charge-sheet is filed within the next three months.
- The District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) should immediately ensure that panel lawyers are made available for every police station to represent on behalf of people who require their services.
- The DLSA at Thoothukudi should appoint special lawyers in these cases on behalf of the accused who are appearing in the court in the cases. These lawyers will file petitions in the respective courts for the appearance on summons of these accused persons only if charge sheets are field against them.
Protection of Human Rights Defenders
- In the case of human rights defender Mugilan, who suddenly disappeared on February 15, 2019, after his exclusive press conference at the Press club in Chennai accusing the IG of Police South Range Madurai and the DIG of Police Tirunelveli for the Thoothukudi killings, which he proved through the CCTV video footages that he provided to the media at the press meet. The CB-CID police investigating the case and reporting to the Madras High Court has not publicly acknowledged if it has examined the IG South Madurai and DIG Tirunelveli in its investigation or even any of the officials of Sterlite. Before the next hearing on June 6, 2019, the CBCID should examine these police officers and Sterlite’s senior officers about their role in the disappearance of Mugilan and present it comprehensive report to the Hon’ble Court.
- The District Magistrate therefore should ensure that in all matters relating to people’s right to peaceful assembly and other related rights to expression, dissent, criticize and associate human rights defenders – whether they are individuals, or associations, registered or nonregistered are handled first with respect by all state instrumentalities within the district whether they are revenue officials or police officials and allowed to enforce their rights as enshrined in the Constitution without any hinderance as has been seen in the past one year.
- Eight UN Special Rapporteurs who had jointly issued a statement concerning the May 22 events in Thoothukudi should revisit this case urgently in the light of almost no efforts undertaken in the past one year to break the prevalent state of impunity.
The report observes that people are not willing to give up the fight against Sterlite. As said by one of them– ‘the blood he shed will not go waste’. They believe that their lives were dedicated for a good cause and the only demand of the family members today is to ban Sterlite! On this, one of the injured persons who refused any compensation stated – “I am proud of my engagement but frustrated that we have not received any concrete justice from the NHRC, the CBI and Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission of Enquiry.”
Feature Image: An officer targeting civilians during anti-Sterlite protests in Tuticorin, PTI