Tuticorin: In a village called Silverpuram in Tamil Nadu, 31-year-old Ram Lakshmi's husband Murugan died of intestinal cancer three years ago. Visually challenged Ram Lakshmi now struggles to make ends meet. She earns Rs 2,500 a month and sends two children to school - Tamil Selvam and Tamil Selvi. Her son wants to be a police officer; her daughter is yet to make up her mind.
- Many cancer cases in village near Sterlite plant in Tuticorin
- In Silverpuram, around 60 households have cancer patients
- Neurotoxins much above safe limits found in the groundwater: Sources
Next door, Meera lost her husband Subaiah recently to liver cancer. Her husband's treatment wiped her out. Meera's son was forced to drop out of school to earn some money. He works as a truck cleaner now. Meera is somehow managing to send her daughter to school.
On the same street, a few houses away, Helen Hepsibah is suffering from cancer of the kidneys. Helen had surgery recently for the removal of one of the affected kidneys. Six years ago, Helen's friend A Rajaselvi, in the same neighbourhood, lost her mother Velamal to uterine cancer.
All three live in a village in Tuticorin that is just about 3 km from Vedanta's Sterlite plant - the epicenter of protests by hundreds of villagers against a copper smelter they said was harming the environment and their health.
In the village of 2,000, around 60 people have cancer and they blame the smelter, even though the state government has not carried out any specific study to identify the cause for cancer in high numbers among residents around the plant.
Sterlite asserts that the correlation between industrialization and cancer is "misplaced" and has not been established by any study.
Ram Lakshmi isn't convinced. "This plant should not be allowed. No children should suffer like this. When others call their fathers appa, my children are unable to," she says. Her neighbour Meera says: "They should shut down Sterlite. At least our children should be fine."
Effluents, slag and gypsum dumped over the last two decades have contaminated the ground water in several areas around the plant, say activists, adding that several water bodies and public tube wells have been abandoned as the water is discoloured and unusable.
An analysis by the state pollution control board of water samples from 15 locations in the vicinity of the Sterlite plant revealed toxins beyond the safe limit, according to official sources.
Sources in the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board have told NDTV that neurotoxins like lead were detected in the water, in quantities as high as 39 to 55 times the safe limit.
Countering the allegations, Sterlite furnished reports of tests by the anti-pollution board on water from village bore-wells in the vicinity of the plant. The report shows that the arsenic, zinc and fluoride content in the water are within permissible limits, but does not talk about lead.
Sterlite also refers to a report in 2014 by the state Health Department, in which Thoothukudi ranked behind many districts in the number of cancer cases. Another more recent government report indicates Tuticorin is not among the cities in Tamil Nadu with the highest number of cancer cases, the company said.
Activists, however, say Sterlite has violated environmental norms. It falls in the category of "red hazardous large industry", which means it can't be located close to human habitation, but the plant is just 1.5 km from the densely-populated parts of Tuticorin.
Sterlite is accused of neglecting to keep a 25-foot-wide green belt around the plant as it is should have under the rules. Only empty stretches or pockets of thin vegetation are visible.
When Sterlite started production in 1996, its capacity was 40,000 tonnes. Over the years, activists insist the company multiplied its production 10 times to 4 lakh tonnes but didn't proportionately raise the height of the chimneys.
"The air that emanates from the chimney which carries vapourised arsenic and mercury is denser and comes straight to the people and hits them straight in their face," said environmentalist Fathima Babu, on whose petition the Madras High Court put on hold Sterlite's expansion plans.
Sterlite has all along claimed compliance with the law including environmental commitment required by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.
"We are strictly following what the court and government orders are. We always make sure the community and Tuticorin people prosper from us," said Anil Agarwal, chairman of the Vedanta group.
The Tamil Nadu government has shut down the plant through a government order and sealed the premises. Power supply was disconnected to the plant after 13 protesters were killed in police firing on protesters.