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Tuticorin: The enemy stares at you from the mirror

Ratheesh Pisharody writes: The protest in Tuticorin and the police reaction to it is exactly what is expected in a society built on foundations of greed and injustice. Whose interest do you think the police is supposed to protect? Ours, the “middle class” of course. We need those cheap phones and air conditioners, don’t we?

Ratheesh Pisharody

Inherited Misnomers

Of course, we did once enjoy the thrill that came with an escapade with our cousin, only to rat on her later at the dining table or feign ignorance when she got thrashed by her parents, while our eyes met for a fraction of a second. Of course. We do remember how we felt when our parents found us a seat in the plushest college in the city while the person whom we called “best friend” had to find work after school. Of course. We would know.

We don’t know when it started; when we decided that it was okay to “take” and not “give”; when we started feeling entitled and when we started becoming indifferent. Years passed and before we could introspect on these matters we were already part of a very large wheel and had accepted the status quo. We understood mathematics as a game of numbers written in ruled notebooks but never found its connection to the kind of privileges we get or the salaries we earn. We looked at history as paragraphs of English text that incite amusement, anger and despair but not lessons. Science was to us an ugly appendix that can be attached to any field and get a bachelor’s degree.

We are the poster children of the unbounded greed, ignorance and apathy that we call the middle-class. The strangest thing about the middle-class is that the “growth” parameter does not apply to us; neither does the inverse of it. The “poor” will become “rich” one day and talk about it. The “rich” become “poor” and “rich” again. None seem to pass through this incorrectly named phase called the “middle”. And thus, the “middle-class” is stuck in a time-warp. We seem to have arguments for why one should not inherit richness or poverty but no one is complaining about the “middle-class” software-engineer who has two apartments in Jayanagar, Bangalore when he chats about his “middle-class” upbringing by his “middle-class” father who worked in Government sector, earns a pension and has his own home in the same neighborhood.

The same middle-class makes up the entire consumerist population of our City, State, Country and the World. Constantly being fed on stories of “Oh! we did not have enough to eat those days” to wash the guilt of purchasing material goods over and over again and keeping the economy going. Whom do you think the corporate mafia and politicians are catering to? The rich? Not really; there are only a few rich and they are already in the right kind of clubs controlling most of the world. The poor? They do not have the empowerment to make any significant contribution. The big-wigs of the world are pandering to the middle-class, ignorant and delusional consumerist in us.

The irony is that the same middle-class also produces thinkers, writers, painters, dancers, activists, theatre-artists, scientists, social-workers, teachers, politicians, journalists, environmentalists, enterpreneurs, sportsmen, actors, singers and a whole population that keep the demand-supply going in the society. At different phases, the middle-class finds itself pitched against one another. So the first step in evolution is to dismantle this pseudo-category called middle-class by taking a personal oath to come out of this self-pity.

Shedding the Sheep-Skin

The freedom that is offered by shedding the middle-class coat is immense. We will see the world more objectively. We will see that it is not as black-and-white as we thought it to be. And most importantly we will see the role we play in the injustice and violence that takes place around us. We will see that not all rapes are sexual in nature. We will see that not all marriages are holy bonds. We will see that a bomb-blast was not just a violent on-the-spur act limited to its technicalities and body-counts. We will see that under every layer of this onion we call society, there is a glossy outside and sharp-smelling, discomforting and sometimes foul-smelling “us”. We will see that it is just our action (and inaction) playing out in front of us; what we later call a crime and find villains for. Just like that cousin of ours who got thrashed.

Take for e.g the protest in Tuticorin. Most of the middle-class will agree we want a pleasant smelling neighborhood with fresh air and clean water in the “corporation tap”. We will also want noiseless environment unless it is “our religion or caste” making a hullabaloo during the innumerable festivals. But we will also want other things. Such as mobile phones, latest kitchenware, best cars with music systems, air conditioning, ceiling fans, torches, headlamps and such. Whether the absurd “middle-class” or the well defined “rich” or “poor”, no one spends a minute considering that “our want” might be a problem. Especially when our “wants” contradict.

Dots that beg connecting

None of those items listed earlier can be manufactured without copper. Incidentally copper does not make its appearance in shiny boxes as the consumerist in us would have liked but needs to be stolen from the Earth and then smelted. Details are best avoided here but know for sure that this process involves heavy machines, factories and infrastructure. All of which need locations that make practical sense because after all “we” the middle-class also want the aforementioned items to be cheap. So overhead costs have to be avoided too. To make that happen, there results violations of law, violation of basic human rights, environmental damage and also inhumanely low wages. All so that we can go home and hear our mother say “look, your brother bought me a cheap phone”.

The protest in Tuticorin and the reaction of the police on behalf of the ruling state is exactly what is expected in a society built on foundations of greed and injustice. Whose interest do you think the police is supposed to protect? Ours, the “middle class” of course. We need those cheap phones and air conditioners don’t we? We need electrical wiring for our second home which we want to rent out in Koramangala to “further” our role in the injustice. How do we decide our reaction to the police action? Do we feel sad about the victims? Are we supposed to vent our anger from the convenience of our homes, on Internet based platforms while sipping on cold water delivered from the refrigerators that were built using that copper? Or do we ignore the violence happening in our neighborhood and “keep calm” as the adverts suggest helped by the slow conditioning towards apathy that we are going through?

Regardless of how late it may seem, it is never too late to come out of denial. We have a role to play in whatever violence in our society. It is easy to find the villains in the State/Central Government, The Police, the parent company involved (Vedanta) or the CEO of Sterlite. But they are just our cousins who are currently under the assumption that we are enjoying and willing accomplices to this escapade provided on a speeding train called Capitalism. We need to pull the chains, disembark somewhere and ask the right questions. Are we on the right train? More importantly, are we on the right track? Or in the right direction? Heck. Are we even supposed to move? If yes. Why?

The Fundamental is the “Self”

We need to ask questions; first to ourselves. Do we need that? Do we need this? What is the bare minimum needs we have on a given day. How are we justifying consumption of X? Are we lying to ourself? We should stop putting people on a pedestal because “they” seem idealistic. Be it a friend who has turned vegetarian or a prime minister who is personally un-corrupt. We need to start with ourselves. What are we? Who are we? And how can we contribute? And most importantly how are we contributing today to the problem?

The violence and injustice that we see today, feel bad about and sometimes take a judgmental positions about, rests on pillars that are constructed with brick and mortar that we supply via our greed. It is going to be painful. Parents, friends, Naysayers and Ignoramuses will stop us from acting as to what we truly are. We will need to be courageous enough to take the right action. The first step is to reduce consumption. Plain and simple. Let us not now fall into a huge trap laid out by the examples above that consumerism is limited to what seems like luxurious items. The ugly truth about the concept of “middle-class” is that we have been conditioned in that area also. Every “luxury” of the past has been conveniently folded into the “needs” category so that the usage can be justified while still calling ourselves a “middle class”.

We need to remember that this is not a one-time act like discarding that mobile-phone or switching to solar power. We do not need to be in dogmatic camps. We need to become students; students who study ourselves. What about the food we eat? Do we cause suffering to others in the process of procuring what we need? We need to stop putting ourselves into groups such as Vegetarian, Vegan, Organic etc and stop being delusional about diets. What we really need to understand is that the basic premise of violence cannot be shrugged off. Someone said “As long as we eat, there is violence”. The only thing we can really do is hope to inflict the least amount of violence.

We can bring down the injustice and violence in our society, be it a factory that smelts copper or another one that breeds hundreds of cows and milk them to satisfy our greedy palate. Injustice is not sectarian. Only we can be. Violence is not an arbitrary act of hate between other people while we can disengage and watch as mere observers. None of us signed up for this theater called life and the scenes or acts playing out today; not voluntarily at least. But we can play better parts and improvise and when deserving, sign off with an applause.

Vedanta Plant at Thoothukudi to Be Shut Permanently After Deadly Protests
The Wire
Thirteen people were killed while protesting the pollution and health hazard caused by the Vedanta group’s copper plant. Tamil Nadu deputy chief minister O. Panneerselvam asserted on May 28 that the government will take resolute steps for the permanent closure of Vedanta group’s copper plant here.


In A Village 3 Km From Sterlite Plant, Every Other House Has A Cancer Patient
In Silverpuram, a village of 2000 people, sixty households have cancer patients and all of them blame Sterlite for their plight. An analysis, by the state pollution control board, of water samples from 15 locations in the vicinity of the Sterlite plant has thrown up shocking findings. Sources in the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board have told NDTV, presence of neurotoxins like lead, as high as 39 to 55 times of the safe limits have been detected.

NEERI made way for Sterlite to pollute Tuticorin
Down to Earth
The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) has conducted multiple studies on the environmental impact of Sterlite’s controversial copper smelting plant in Tuticorin. The first of these published in November, 1998, was conducted on the direction of the Madras High Court. This NEERI report was highly critical of the environmental norms flouted by Sterlite in the construction of the plant. But just a few months later in February, 1999, the same institution gave a clean chit to Sterlite even though it had found more than permissible amounts of groundwater and air pollutants in and around the factory site. According to Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist and writer, “This was the beginning of a bonanza for NEERI. It received contracts worth Rs 1.27 crore from Sterlite in between 1999 and 2007 for various reports in which it was not as stringent with Sterlite’s operations as it was in its first report in 1998.”

Thoothukudi protest: How NDA govt decisions helped Vedanta bypass norms
Business Standard
In 2016 the National Green Tribunal found, the December orders of the NDA government, which favoured Vedanta, to be illegal. It had to go to the point of threatening bailable orders against the environment ministry officials in the case to divulge information on the matter. Ministry officials said rescinding the government’s December 2014 orders would adversely impact many projects. Eventually, the NGT quashed the December 2014 orders. On the NGT’s instructions, the ministry had to pass fresh orders clearly stating that projects in industrial parks without environmental clearances needed to conduct public hearings. But, by then Vedanta had secured an extension of the green clearance to its expansion project in Thoothukudi without the need for a public hearing.

What was done with the Rs. 100 crore fine Vedanta paid for Sterlite violations? Not much, finds RTI query
The News Minute
Over the last five years, the Thoothukudi district administration has failed to not only address the angst of residents over pollution by Sterlite copper but also to utilise funds to improve the environment in the vicinity of the plant, government documents received under RTI show. Of the Rs.100 crore deposited by Sterlite industries as penalty for violating pollution control and environment norms in 2013, only Rs.7 crore has been spent. The Supreme Court had directed that the compensation that was being levied for polluting the environment and operating the plant without consent, should be deposited by the Thoothukudi Collector in a fixed deposit.


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