Sterlite protest in Tuticorin: All you need to know about the copper company's troubled past in the state

The Madras High Court's Madurai bench Wednesday on Wednesday has stayed the construction of Sterlite's new copper smelter plant at the Toothukudi unit.

The ongoing violence in Tamil Nadu's Thoothukudi has claimed nine lives and severely injured several others as protests entered their 100th day on Tuesday. The agitators have been protesting against the proposed expansion of a copper smelter of Sterlite Copper, a unit of the Vedanta group, over pollution concerns.

Sterlite Copper unit has been in operation in Tuticorin since its inception in 1997 and has been dogged by controversies throughout. But at the heart of the fresh protest at the unit, is a brownfield expansion of the plant, entailing a doubling of the capacity of the smelter to 8,00,000 tonnes per year. Protesters say that pollution from the copper plant, including issues relating to disposal of copper waste and effluents from the operational unit, demanding its permanent closure.

According to a report in The Indian Express, fresh petitions were filed seeking directions to take suitable action against the company for alleged failure to take safety measures due to which there were pollution and industrial accidents at the plant.

In September 2010, the Madras High Court disposed the writ petitions with a direction to shut down the Tuticorin plant. After this, the company appealed to the Supreme Court which passed an interim order staying the high court order, the report states.

In March 2013, people living in the vicinity of the plant complained of eye irritation and suffocation, following which the facility was inspected by the District Environmental Engineer. Later, the Collector issued a press release stating that the emissions of sulphur dioxide were found within overall limits and the public had not been affected by it at large.

But a gas leak in March 2013 from the plant led to the then chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, ordering its closure. After this, the company moved the National Green Tribunal against the state government. The Tribunal then overturned the government order following which the state moved the Supreme Court, which, in its order dated 2 April, 2013, set aside the High Court order but directed the company to deposit Rs 100 crore within three months with the Collector, according to the Indian Express report.

Meanwhile, the Tuticorin plant has been shut since 27 March, with the company citing the closure as a part of 15-day maintenance. Incidentally, the company had an approval to operate the plant only until 31 March.

Violence in Tuticorin during Sterlite protest. PTI.

Violence in Tuticorin during Sterlite protest. PTI.

During the closure, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board rejected Vedanta's licence to operate the smelter in April, saying the company had not complied with local environmental laws. Sterlite had challenged the step and the appellate authority of the pollution board had adjourned the next hearing to 6 June.

In a letter written in February, Sterlite Copper has filed an application for “obtaining environmental clearance for proposed capacity enhancement” of the “Copper Anode production from 1,200 tonnes per day to 1,440 tonnes per day by process optimisation in the existing copper smelter plant-I” in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi. While another letter written by the company, earlier in January, states its recommendation for extension of validity of the environmental clearance for a further period of 3 years i.e. up to 31 December 2018. However, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) website states that last clearance was granted to the company on 23 July 2015.

Sources told Firstpost, that in March this year, thousands of protesters came together and protested peacefully at the Chidambaram Nagar bus stand in the district. The protesters included activists who have opposed the plant for over two decades and villagers from Kumarattiyapuram village. Villagers in the area have been protesting against noxious gas leaks and bad effluent management for over two decades over environmental dangers.

Some activists have said that the plant poses a grave danger to the residents of the area as reports have suggested a rise in throat and eye cancer cases in the area. While environmental activists contend that a plant like Sterlite will require lot of surface water and resources, which may gradually lead to depletion of drinking water in the area and also shortage for agricultural supply. An activist group, as per the Express report, has even "accused the pollution board of allowing the company to operate its smelter with shorter chimney stacks than permitted which helped the company reduce costs but harmed the environment".

Sources told News18, Fathima Babu of the Anti Killer Sterlite People's Movement said, "There are lot of environmental dangers as well as health dangers, particularly cancer. Almost every house is affected by cancer. Children are most affected. Throat cancer has increased. Eye cancer has also gone up. All this is strange and shocking. We have taken the decision that this district can no longer tolerate this. We have entered the field. The trader's association has played a big role today by shutting shop and striking."

"Copper smelters are very polluting industries. They lead to the release of sulphur dioxide and dust particles in the air. In addition to this, a plant such as this will require a lot of surface water and resources, which should go for agriculture. Drinking water supply will be depleted," environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman told The News Minute.

Meanwhile, responding to the allegations against it, the company said that the plant has received necessary permits and has not violated any norms. A report in Business Today, quotes P Ramnath, CEO of Sterlite Copper as saying, “the company had offered to open its gates for people to see for themselves than believe rumours and half-truths.” However, the offer was turned down by activists insisting that it was not what happened inside the factory, but the environmental damage caused by it.

According to the report, the Vedanta Group in its statement said that the incidents around the protest at Tuticorin are regrettable and that the company has appealed to the government and authorities to ensure the safety of employees, facilities and the surrounding community. "The Sterlite Copper plant is currently non-operational as we await approval for the Consent to Operate", it added.

On the other hand, various political parties such as DMK and actor Kamal Hassan’s Makkal Neethi Mayyam have also taken part in anti-Sterlite protests. DMK working president and Leader of Opposition in the state assembly MK Stalin tweeted to condemn the “police atrocities” that took place. While Kamal Haasan was quoted by PTI as saying: “The expansion (of Sterlite Copper) should not at all be allowed. If possible it will be good to close down the (existing) unit.”

However, the Tuticorin Stevedores’ Association, which handles manual cargo at the V O Chidambaranar Port Trust in Tuticorin, has appealed to the chief minister to take steps to resume copper production at the plant, says a The Economic Times report. TSA president T Velsankar says that Sterlite was the single-largest private company handling a consistent annualised volume of about 38 lakh metric tonnes of cargo.

The association claims that the closure of the plant has affected the livelihood of thousands of freight operators, drivers and workers in allied industries. Chemical Industries Association and Winding Wire Manufacturers Association have also opposed the closure of the plant, saying it would adversely impact thousands of workers as well as other small factories that depend on the plant for their business.

According to the ET report, closure of the plant has also led to a spike in copper prices. The plant has the capacity to produce 4 lakh tonnes of copper per year and has a share of about 35 percent in India’s primary copper market. And as India's copper consumption has been increasing consistently over the last few years, at current local demand growth of 7 to 8 percent per year, India may turn into a net importer of copper by the year ended March 2020 if no new plant is commissioned- consultancy firm ICRA Ltd said in an April report.

Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami on Tuesday ordered the setting up of a one-member commission of inquiry into the firing against anti-Sterlite protesters in Thoothukudi. As per The Hindu, the chief minister has also said that a solatium of 10 lakh rupees would be paid to the family of each deceased; three lakh rupees to each of those who suffered major injuries; and Rs one lakh to each of those with minor injuries. “Besides, on compassionate grounds, government employment will be provided to one member of the family of every deceased subject to qualifications," he said. Condoling the deaths, he directed the Thoothukudi district administration and doctors to ensure that the injured be provided quality treatment.

However, seeking to justify the police action of firing at a “20,000-strong crowd who indulged in violence”, the chief minister in his statement said: “It was with a view to bringing under control the violence of the crowd that the police, under unavoidable circumstances, had to resort to the firing."

With inputs from VV Padmanabha Sharma


Updated Date: May 23, 2018 14:17 PM

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