Issue Brief No.9

Governance by Fear in Tamil Nadu: A Template from Thoothukudi

Thoothukudi, in southern Tamil Nadu, found its place in recorded history preceding even that of the State’s capital, Chennai. Famed as one among the world’s ancient seaports documented by the likes of Ptolemy, it is now in the news for all that can go wrong in the dynamic interplay of the state and citizenry, industrialisation and the environment, and governance and public interest.

On May 22, 2018, police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators who had been protesting against a copper smelter plant, which for close to two decades was mired in controversy over its impact on the environment, public health, and the manner in which the state was seen as siding with corporate interests overriding public concerns.

The police action on the 100 day of the protests went down as an emotive experience in which public voices were stilled by bullets, governance was all but abdicated by civil authorities, and, in a seeming response to the popular outcry, the smelter, run by Sterlite Copper, a subsidiary of Vedanta, a global mining conglomerate was shut down.

In this Issue Brief, M.G. Devasahayam, former Indian Army and Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, puts together the pieces and focusses the spotlight on the failure of state mechanisms, leading to the government resorting to “Governance by Fear.” Drawing from his experience as an administrator and soldier he points out the serious flaws in the handling of the entire issue by the political leadership, executive and the judiciary. He dissects the order under Section 144 CrPC and exposes its illegality, draws attention to the procedural blunders and the disproportionate role played by the uniformed force of the State, and the manner in which what started out as an expression of collective dissent ended in a tragedy which claimed the lives of 13 people and the limbs of many more.

The Issue Brief also delves into the growing trend of the seemingly democratic state becoming brazenly autocratic to facilitate the “ruling oligarchy grow richer while their less fortunate brethren suffer and starve” a sure sign of the State not being governed as per the mandate of the Constitution of India.

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