The Tamil Nadu government acted, far too late in the day, and it would seem, to those who are stranger to the ways of Anil Aggarwal, that the fate of Sterlite is sealed. Our purpose here, however, is not to prognosticate the measures to unfold in the near future. To us, the tragedy of the people of Thoothukudi, thanks to Sterlite, is a case study on the interface between the captains of crony capitalism and the local community. The parallel between the 22-years-long history of Sterlite’s menacing presence barely six kilometers from the heart of the town, in flagrant violation of all basic norms, and the mind-sets and patterns of colonial operations, are too striking to be ignored. The Sterlite syndrome needs to be taken note of because its features characterize the outlook of many of our corporate giants, thriving under the over-generous benevolence of the state.
The most charitable view we can take of Sterlite invasion of Thoothukudi – warded off earlier from Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat by the governments there – spewing pollution endangering the life of the local people is that it came as a guest to Thoothukudi. Uninvited by the local people, all right; but a guest, nonetheless, insofar as the entry of this alien was sanctioned by regulatory authorities. Its intriguing record reads like a fairy-tale of the generous latitude that the state extends customarily to corporate giants. Aam Aadmis as we are, it is not in our remit to udge the technicalities of the violations – and the sleights of hand in nudging the authorities to fall in line – perpetrated by Sterlite. Our concern here is only with the key human issue that emerges from the Sterlite tragedy.
In the interest of impartial and clear thinking it helps to be guided by objective principles and maxims. To that end, we invoke Immanuel Kant’s Third Definitive Article on Perpetual Peace – The rights of men, as citizens of the world, shall be limited to the conditions of universal hospitality. The rationale for regarding corporate giants as ‘citizens of the world’ is well established by the likes of Mallya, Nirav Modi and their ilk. India is their happy hunting ground; but their homes are overseas. This is clearer in the case of Sterlite, which is a subsidiary of London-based Anil Aggarwal’s Vedanta Resources. So, it is right and proper that we de-construct the Thoothukudi malady within the framework of ‘hospitality.’ Sterlite, let’s say, is entitled to hospitality from the local people.
But ‘hospitality’ is a two-way thing. The rights comprehended in hospitality are limited to the incoming person or agency being treated without prejudicial hostility. The local people have no right, beforehand, to see Sterlite as an enemy. But the hospitality that they are to extend to Sterlite cannot be a unilateral obligation. It needs to be complemented, and validated, by Sterlite’s willingness to conduct itself as a guest, and not as a predator. That is to say, Sterlite cannot conduct itself like a colonizer and defend its inhuman unconcern towards local people by invoking the courtesies due under hospitality. The ambit of hospitality ruptures when the guest violates the discipline of reciprocal courtesies and obligations.
It is in this respect that the analogy becomes compelling between those corporate giants that cause serious environmental hazards through murderous greed on the one hand, and the colonial powers of the past, on the other. This analogy bears closer scrutiny.
Now, as if to showcase the long reaches of Anil Aggarwal, the rational godman, Jaggi Vasudev, has pulled his weight behind Sterlite. In an argument meant especially for dunces, he makes a distinction between fighting pollution and fighting a company. Fight pollution, the wiseman counsels, but don’t shut down Sterlite. If you were looking for an instance of tautology, you couldn’t get any better than this! He doesn’t tell us, though, how this abstraction called pollution can be fought without fighting industrial operation that spew pollution in blatant violation of safety norms. Characteristically he has nothing to say on whether or not Sterlite should have complied with relevant norms.
Sterlite is our date with truth. The people, the citizens of the democratic Republic of India, are in grave peril, if pitted against the oligarchs of industry. What if thirteen people are exterminated? There is copper to compensate the lives extinguished. And copper can be used, if defence needs so dictate, to make bullets. It is myopic and a historical to see the Sterlite syndrome only as an issue in environmental degradation or the oppression of some God-forsaken people. Seen aright, it is an issue that imperils the essence of India a republic. The core of a republic is governance strictly according to the Constitution, in unwavering commitment to the equality of all citizens, their right to life and liberty. And it is against this that Sterlite snarls.