When powerful people form cartels and stand together, it is virtually impossible to crack the wall they build around themselves.
Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu has a nice, musical ring to it. It could be a charming Italian town on the Amalfi coast. Like Capri. Or Positano. But no! It is a copper town in Tamil Nadu and has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently. Sterlite Copper Industries, promoted and run by 64-year-old Anil Agarwal, a London-based billionaire ($4 billion) originally from Patna and popularly known as “mine sweeper”, hit the headlines for the umpteenth time last fortnight, when an agitation at the plant was brutally put down by trigger-happy cops, leading to the death of 13 individuals. Predictably, a knee-jerk response soon followed, with Tamil Nadu chief minister E.K. Palaniswami arbitrarily sealing the plant permanently, stating he was doing so “in deference to the sentiments of the people”. Where was his sensitivity to “sentiments of the people” all these days? Apparently, zero due diligence was undertaken before sealing the plant (which has a long and terrible history of various highly damaging and dangerous transgressions, leading to the deaths of workers as far back as in 1997). Mr Agarwal directly or indirectly employs 50,000 people and his Tuticorin plant accounts for 40 per cent of India’s annual copper production. What happens to the jobless 50,000 people now that the plant has been sealed? Or to India’s copper production, for that matter? How come the chief minister did not take any of this into account when he high-handedly ordered a permanent closure of the plant? What happens next?
The day this dramatic announcement was made, I was at a high-powered soirée in Mumbai. It was a gathering of the usual suspects (count me in) — journalists, bankers, business people and movie stars. Many lively cocktail conversations ensued, with suitable facial expressions while discussing “grave national issues” over the world’s finest champagnes and wines. The Tuticorin tragedy was raised by a few journalists, as guests nibbled on Spain-inspired tapas. All of it was very discreet, elegant, civilised and controlled. Someone asked: “Why are there no public conversations around Tuticorin?” Someone else piped up with: “...or about Chanda Kochhar, for that matter? Or Cobrapost?” After a bit of throat-clearing and an uncomfortable pause, the details of the tragedy that took the lives of protesters after a 100-day agitation were discussed sotto voce. Final verdict and cynical conclusion? The plant will quietly reopen after a week or so, when people are less angry and a new scandal erupts to distract the restless natives. In other words — all the posturing and strutting around undertaken by Mr Palaniswami has been nothing but an elaborate charade, a stunt, possibly a “setting” between him and the Centre, to show he means business! What a pathetic joke, if this actually transpires — as it is likely to. Ditto for the shocking revelations tabled by the Cobrapost sting operations, which ostensibly showed how easy it is in today’s commercially-driven times to offer cash in exchange for manipulated media coverage. Zero “conversations” around that hot potato as well. The reasons for the collective silence are obvious. Who dares to take on the Big Boys’ Club? When storm clouds gather, big players take shelter together. And cover each other’s butts.
What’s true about the media, is true about business, is true about politics, is true about Bollywood.
When powerful people form cartels and stand together, it is virtually impossible to crack the wall they build around themselves. Vedanta Resources, Mr Agarwal’s mammoth-sized operation, is a gigantic player. God knows how many political parties and politicians he has bought and sold over the years. His Sterlite ambitions began in 1996, with Sharad Pawar and Maharashtra. Along the way, he negotiated with the likes of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, after he was refused permission by Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. The man is known to court the toughest adversaries and win them over eventually (private jets, one hears, are offered generously to political influencers). In such a putrid and corrupt environment, what chance do ethics and principles stand? In the wake of the Tuticorin outrage, many clever memes and messages were circulated over social media platforms. One such said: In India, the corrupt accuse the corrupt of being corrupt and the corrupt investigate the corrupt and absolve the corrupt of being corrupt. Accurate!
Where does that leave citizens? Well — at the exact same spot they have always been — inside a bottomless, filthy well. The apathy is pretty inexplicable, given the greater awareness and exposure to news we enjoy today as compared to even 10 years ago. So why is everyone so “thanda” and not reacting, participating, agitating? Why are public dialogues so tepid and lifeless, so insipid and dull? Theories about this mysterious silence are many and colourful. Within media circles it is called the “Gauri Lankesh” syndrome. One offensive/provocative idea against the party in power — and boom — you are dead! It is not paranoia alone that is inhibiting journalists, say those who consider themselves “important enough to be targeted” (it is a status symbol to be on a hit list and receive death threats). Throw in the nuisance value of fighting tedious lawsuits in far-flung places and — voila — instant silence. Amazingly enough, citizens and mediawallas in India’s immediate neighbourhood have a far better response to political/social developments in their own countries. Pakistan has a vibrant and critical press (read F.S. Aijazuddin’s column in Dawn), so does Sri Lanka. Despite a violent history of bloggers being hacked to death in Bangladesh, dissidents continue to express themselves fearlessly. Have we in India forgotten our past, especially that brief and hideous chapter, notorious for its suspension of human rights — Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency”? If we don’t protect our freedoms fiercely now, the chances are we will be laying the ground for another Emergency. Whether it is the Anil Agarwals who flout safety regulations with impunity, or plain scoundrels on the run, like Nirav Modi, it is really in our hands and minds and hearts to engage and be seen as active participants in a democracy. If we stay away believing it is not our problem, we may discover to our eternal regret, that the very people we made such massive allowances for and so generously accommodated, are the ones who come for us eventually — guns, swords, stones, optional.