We would confine ourselves to the role of the police in the Sterlite issue
- Much has been said and written about the issue in the past few months, culminating in the police action which resulted in the death of at least thirteen people. A magisterial inquiry has been ordered into the whole issue. We may have to wait for the outcome of the inquiry, as to what led to such a state of affairs and who’s responsible for it.
- There are quite a few players involved; the Sterlite management, the people of Thoothukudi, the district administration including the police, state and central pollution control boards and the intelligence machinery, the state government, the central government and so on.
- As for the role of various political parties, particularly the DMK and the ADMK, both of them at the state level and the Congress and the BJP in the centre have been in and out of power during the long checkered history of the Sterlite saga, which stretches across 20-25 years. The blame game is on until the inquiry commission comes to a conclusion, but, it’s futile to speculate about who permitted, who paid what money to whom etc. It’s absurd and irresponsible that the press equating CM of TN to General Dyer of Jallianwala Bagh, Rahul Gandhi holding Modi and RSS responsible, and DMK pretending innocent.
- We would confine ourselves to the role of the police and how such a situation is handled without letting the issue go out of hand, as is the present case under consideration.
- The district administration and the police play a pivotal role, with governments at the centre and the state getting the reports only from them. In fact, the criminal procedure code (CrPc) recognizes only the station house officer of the police and executive magistrate of the district.
Judgment is vital in deciding the strength of police force to be deployed, and the requirements of latis, weapons and other riot gear
- In this case, there must have been a long history and therefore, a special file, which the succeeding local authorities like the Collector, the SP, and other junior officials, should have been thoroughly familiar with the details of the issue involved. This would help in understanding the sensitivity of the case.
- Once understood, the judicious deployment of intelligence staff follows. The tragedy is that the Intelligence wing receives less importance and oftentimes, disgruntled elements find a place in this important wing. Inconvenient personal are also dumped into this section. In the present situation, about 60 wards and 20 villages were involved and various activities of the protestors were planned. The deployment and coverage of these sensitive villages should have received top priority. Developing and cultivating informers were vital for getting timely information. It would have been easier, if followed, to identify infiltrators as alleged. If the intelligence personnel were locals, the task would have been easier.
- The role of the higher-ups at the district level is very important. The Collector and the SP along with their Sub-collectors and Dysps should get thoroughly acquainted with the issues involved. In this case, it remains to be seen whether the district administration played a positive role in mediating and bringing an agreement well before the confrontation. For instance, in March 2018, the state pollution control board denied the extension of operations by the company on the grounds of extensive damage to the environment in the area. It is not known whether the SP obtained a copy of the report and studied it to understand the sensitivity. The case has seen many approvals, bans, court proceedings, claims by the management regarding observance of pollution norms and counterclaims by the people.
- Next would be for the police and the administration to hold talks with the people of the villages concerned and verified their stories of pollution affecting their health. Police and revenue officials have an important role here. While they are not the deciding authorities, they may as well be aware in order to handle a situation, should it arise.
- The agitation was primarily that of the people who allegedly suffered the consequences. Later, other elements are alleged to have infiltrated into the crowds, which resulted in the tragedy. If there was no lack of knowledge of the situation and proper preventive action at the inception by the police, the assessment of the number of people can’t go wrong. How many would be coming in procession or meeting and their target, whether the school grounds they were allowed to gather or the collector’s office, they finally ended up at. Or for that matter, identifying who are the outside elements who were solely interested in creating anarchy.
- Dividing the various groups involved in the agitation is not uncommon for the local police. This is a good strategy, provided the police have an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the groups concerned. If this goes wrong, then it will result in misjudging the likely outcome. In the present case, the main problem with the aggrieved public and agitators is that they didn’t have proper leaders and this fact became convenient for the alleged infiltrators, who virtually turned the people into militant fighters. For instance, the way vehicles have been torched doesn’t appear to be the handiwork of the locals.
- Judgment is vital in deciding the strength of police force to be deployed, and the requirements of latis, weapons and other riot gear. Use of weapons is strictly monitored, after obtaining shooting orders from the competent authorities, in this case, the Collector or deputy collectors. There are SOPs to follow how to carry out the shooting. Generally, after exhausting all other measures of dispersing the crowds, firing is resorted to as the last resort. It should be to diffuse and not kill unless it becomes unavoidable. It should be at ground level and not from the roof etc. in this case, it remains to be seen whether the police had created enough deterrence to prevent the mob from entering the Collectorate and were ready with their water canons, rubber bullets and weapons for a show of strength and determination.
- If the reports were correct that the DIG Range was not present at the scene, it is astonishing that a senior officer was not present to guide the district officials at a critical time like this. His presence and guidance would have made a difference. The police is also reported to have retreated in a few places, thus emboldening the mob. Ultimately Police can win a situation with qualities of knowledge, courage, determination and disciplined approach, and not with bullets.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.