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Indian court stops construction at copper plant after 11 killed in protests

Indian court stops construction at copper plant after 11 killed in protests
This frame grab from video provided by KK Productions shows protesters in Tuticorin, India, demanding the closure of a copper plant. (Associated Press)

A court in India on Wednesday ordered a stop to the expansion of a copper plant in the southern city of Tuticorin, a day after police killed 11 protesters upset about pollution caused by the factory.

The Sterlite copper plant — part of the London-based metals company Vedanta — has been accused of flouting environmental regulations and polluting air and water in the port city of Tuticorin, in Tamil Nadu state.

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The Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu issued an interim order blocking a plan to double the size of the smelter to 800,000 tons, which opponents say would make it the world's largest such facility in an urban area.

The order came a day after thousands of people attempted to march to the offices of the district collector, a top local official, when police opened fire on the crowd. Tuesday was the 100th consecutive day of demonstrations calling for the plant to be closed.

The state's chief minister, E. Palanisamy, on Wednesday transferred the collector and the police superintendent in Tuticorin to other posts outside the city. He had earlier ordered a judicial inquiry into what happened during Tuesday's demonstration, one of the deadliest police crackdowns on a protest in India in recent years.

Palanisamy said the police action was justified because demonstrators had become violent, set fire to cars and threw stones at the collector's office.

"To bring the violence under control, under unavoidable circumstances, police had to take action," Palanisamy said in a statement Tuesday.

Indian news reports quoted witnesses as saying that police officers did not fire warning shots and aimed at demonstrators' chests. In a video aired by Tamil-language news channels, at least one police officer is seen climbing atop a van to shoot at the crowd, while a voice off-camera is heard saying: "At least one should die."

An activist named S. Raj, who was involved in the protest, said he had met with family members of the victims, all of whom he said were demonstrators who opposed the plant.

"It is absolutely devastating," Raj said. "Relatives are demanding a ban on Sterlite and action against the police."

Fatima Bhabu, an activist, said it is "surprising and shocking that the government is trying to protect a private [company] at the cost of our lives."

The chairman of Vedanta Group, Anil Agarwal, who lives in London, is one of the richest Indian businessmen with an estimated net worth of $3.3 billion.

Environmental groups have long accused the Sterlite copper smelter, which opened in 1997, of polluting air and water. In 2004, a Supreme Court monitoring committee found that the plant did not have adequate disposal facilities for arsenic-containing waste and was emitting levels of toxic sulfur dioxide gas. Residents in the area blame the plant for high incidences of cancer.

After workers choked and fainted, reportedly from fumes at the plant, a court closed the factory in 1998 and cited it for failing to comply with regulations against contaminating groundwater. But authorities allowed the facility to reopen soon afterward.

The plant was shut down again in 2010 over environmental concerns, but won a reprieve from a higher court. In 2013, a massive gas leak from the plant sickened several hundred residents in the area, some of whom blamed the leak for causing miscarriages and skin and respiratory ailments.

India's Supreme Court in 2013 fined the plant more than $14 million for pollution, but it was allowed to continue to operate.

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"Every household has a cancer patient," Bhabhu said. "Juvenile cancer is prevalent. Children ages 6 and 8 are dying. It is too much to bear for the residents. It is normal for them to be emotionally charged and angry during the protests."

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.

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