Indian court halts expansion of copper plant after deadly protests

This frame grab from video provided by KK Productions shows protesters crowding a road in Tuticorin, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, on Tuesday. Eleven people have died in two days of clashes with police there as demonstrators demand the closure of a Sterlite copper-smelting plant.

(CNN)A court in India's southern Tamil Nadu state has passed an interim order to stop the expansion of a copper smelter that residents argue is causing environmental damage.

The Madras High Court also asked the state government to hold a public hearing on the matter while processing a fresh environmental clearance for Vedanta Ltd.'s Sterlite Copper smelting plant in the port city of Tuticorin. The clearance is due to expire later this year, Poongkhulali Balasubramanian, the petitioner's lawyer, told CNN.
The decision comes after 11 people were killed in protests Tuesday and Wednesday in clashes with authorities, according to Tuticorin's deputy superintendent of police, R. Chin Ram.
    Local residents and activists have been demonstrating at the plant for several months.
    Activists have now shifted the focus of their campaign in response to the violent approach taken by authorities. They are also pushing for the existing factory to be closed.
    "The hope, the demand is for a total and permanent shutdown of Vedanta Sterlite's operation in Tamil Nadu, which means the existing factory should be shut down and no further expansions should be allowed," Nityanand Jayaraman, a social activist, told CNN.

    'An uneasy calm'

    "There is a total shutdown of all shops. Businesses in the city have announced that they will remain shut indefinitely. There are no protests on the street because there is an uneasy calm with the kind of violence that the police unleashed yesterday, which left 10 killed, including two women," added Jayaraman.
    "All of them were shot. Shot in the heads or on the chest and it looks like the government had no intention of just dispersing the crowd but actually to intimidate and strike terror."
    Following the violence on Tuesday, Edappadi K. Palaniswami, Tamil Nadu's chief minister, ordered an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the shootings but stood by the security force's actions.
    Palaniswami issued a statement saying that police were "compelled to take preventative measures to bring the violence under control" after protesters pelted officers with stones and set fire to police vehicles and other vehicles parked nearby.
    Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Indian National Congress party, said on Tuesday the protesters were "gunned down by the police," before criticizing the police action as "state sponsored terrorism" on his Twitter account.

    Resentment rises

    "There's been a build-up of resentment against the company by the people and a very deep-rooted sense of betrayal that the people harbor against the government of Tamil Nadu and the government of India, which they see as backing a private corporation and forsaking their interest," said Jayaraman.
    Protesters have accused the plant, owned by London-based mining giant Vedanta Resources, of polluting groundwater and causing damage to the environment.
    "Copper manufacturing is an extremely polluting industry. It was set up in Tamil Nadu after it was driven out of a different state, Maharashtra, because the people protested against the potential of pollution and it was relocated to Tuticorin. From the day it set foot in Tamil Nadu, the people have been protesting against it but the company is very resourceful and tends to develop extremely good connections with the political parties," said Jayaraman.

    Social responsiblity

    Sterlite Copper has defended its stance, tweeting in April about its role in creating jobs and boosting the economy.
    On its website, Sterlite writes that it has "woven social responsibility into its business fabric right from its inception" in 1996.
    As a company, Sterlite says it "believes that business objectives should include overall development of communities around its surrounding areas" with the aim to "provide the necessary stimulus to not only address these issues but ensure social involvement, acceptability and sustainability."
    Attempts to reach Sterlite on Wednesday were unsuccessful.