Tamil Nadu industries promotion body remains scot-free despite turning blind eye to Sterlite's polluting copper plant

Thirteen people were killed and more than 60 injured on the 100th day of anti-Sterlite protests in Tamil Nadu's Thoothukudi, when the police opened fire on protesters. Within a day, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) disconnected power supply to the Copper Smelter Plant of Sterlite, which is a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources. The Tamil Nadu administration, too, issued a government order endorsing the pollution board's move and issued directions to have the plant permanently closed.

 Tamil Nadu industries promotion body remains scot-free despite turning blind eye to Sterlites polluting copper plant

File image of security outside the Sterlite Copper Plant in Thoothukudi. Reuters

Soon after, the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) joined the bandwagon by cancelling the second lease for a plot it had granted Vedanta for another plant. While the pollution control board, the state government and its police was criticised for inaction and lack of accountability, few have examined or questioned the role played by SIPCOT.

This organisation is a corporate entity wholly owned by the Tamil Nadu government. It calls itself an agency to promote industrialisation in the state, which it does by setting up industrial complexes across Tamil Nadu. The state government allots land to SIPCOT, which the corporation then develops and issues 99-year leases to industries that want to set up shop. Through these leases, SIPCOT allots land to eligible industries, and the contracts include obligations on both sides. The industrial units are obligated to have their statutory compliances in place, and if found violating local laws or polluting the environment, the lease grants SIPCOT the right to cancel the allotment.

A member of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), who did not wish to be named, said SIPCOT was a real estate body, not a regulatory body. “Vedanta did not say it is going to set up a bread-making industry. It was a copper smelter plant all along, and everybody knows, they are the most polluting industries there are," the ASSOCHAM member said. "When such a plant is not supposed to be there in the first place, then why grant the lease?"

"The only thing SIPCOT wants to do is show that it has so much revenue every year and get a few pats on its back.”

While one can argue that a corporation is bound to do that, SIPCOT is not a corporate entity — though it is an autonomous body, the government has allotted most of the land it has acquired over the years and the rest SIPCOT bought from local land holders. Generating employment through these industries is an important part of its mandate, as is the welfare of those who work these jobs and live around these industrial parks. However, SIPCOT’s history in Tamil Nadu points to the opposite.

The Central Pollution Control Board of India identifies Ranipet in Tamil Nadu as a chronic polluted area. The town was also listed as one of ten worst polluted places in the world by New York-based environmental organisation Blacksmith Institute. It must be noted that SIPCOT owns the largest industrial area in Ranipet measuring 1,162 acres. While Ranipet's industrial history dates back to the time of the East India Company, the expansion of industries increased after SIPCOT set up its first industrial complex in the town. Most of them are highly-polluting industries, including tanneries and chemical factories. In addition to present-day effluents, the untreated chromium-bearing waste dumped in the region by Tamil Nadu Chromates and Chemicals Limited two decades ago continues to pollute the groundwater in Ranipet. The daily contamination of water because of the presence of these industries, which flout norms, has destroyed lives and livelihood of farmers in the region.

File image of protests in Thoothukudi against the Sterlite Copper Plant. PTI.

File image of protests in Thoothukudi against the Sterlite Copper Plant. PTI

“SIPCOT can take cognisance of local sentiments and filter industries (to which it grants leases),” said former managing director of SIPCOT Qudisa Gandhi. The senior IAS officer believes that regulating bodies — be it the local administration or entities like SIPCOT — have an important role to play to address the issue of polluting industries. "If the local administration had called those protesting and heard them out, maybe it wouldn't have ended this way,"Gandhi said. "What was the district collector doing?"

While the district collector of Thoothukudi, N Venkatesh, and superintendent of police, P Mahendran, have both been transferred, no inquiries have been initiated to question their role in the events leading up to the clashes on May 22. Before Vedanta's Sterlite Copper moved to Tamil Nadu, the Maharashtra government had granted it land to set up its plant in Ratnagiri in 1992. Although the state government did not buckle to the widespread opposition from the people of Ratnagiri, the local panchayat had refused to let Sterlite carry out its activities. The people of Ratnagiri had maintained throughout that they were not anti-industry but were against highly-polluting industries like Vedanta’s.

Eventually, the Maharashtra government directed the Urban Development Institute (UDI) in Mumbai to conduct a study. The team came out with a damning report, which warned that a copper plant would destroy the region’s coastal environment and should not be given the go ahead. Sterlite Copper and similar polluting industries were told to leave Ratnagiri in 1993. It was only after this that Vedanta approached SIPCOT. By then, Tamil Nadu already had its fair share of polluting industries. SIPCOT allotted its first lease to Vedanta in 1994, within a year of being thrown out of Ratnagiri. Protests against the plant began in 1996.

In an interview to Firstpost, Nithyanand Jayaraman — a Chennai-based writer and social activist who was involved in the struggle against Sterlite’s smelter in Thoothukudi since 2003 — pointed out that complaints of cancer in Thoothukudi began 14 years ago. Around that time, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board had asked Sterlite Industries to conduct comprehensive health studies. It took four more years of insistence from residents and the board for Sterlite to finally submit its health study in 2008. This study, carried out by the Government Medical College of Tirunelveli, found that respiratory, muscular-skeletal and menstrual disorders were common in the region. It linked the ailments to the presence of industries in the area.

The largest industry in SIPCOT’s Thoothukudi Industrial Complex was Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper Smelter.

Despite the ongoing protests, SIPCOT issued Vedanta another lease on 20 October, 2009, granting it 230 more acres in Ottapidaram taluk in Thoothukudi, for further expansion. The lands were handed over even though SIPCOT had not completely acquired them, nor did it have environmental clearances. Despite these constraints, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests granted Vedanta an environmental clearance. The mandatory condition of holding a public hearing was also waived and later affirmed by the Madras High Court in 2016, on representations from Vedanta that SIPCOT had already obtained an environmental clearance for the lands in question. SIPCOT was party to this misrepresentation in the High Court of Madras. The court halted Vedanta's construction activities at the newly-allotted site only after a petition was filed in 2018. It had produced SIPCOT's reply to the TNPCB’s showcause notice, in which they had acknowledged that they did not have an environmental clearance yet.

All of this proves that despite being aware of Vedanta’s wrongdoings, SIPCOT never questioned the company's activities or issued a showcasuse notice. It turned a blind eye to Vedanta's violations in spite of continuous protests, though the lease deeds with Vedanta allows it to cancel the allotment if the industries are found polluting the region. Its move to cancel the second lease where the plant is not yet functional is merely a distraction as the main source of pollution — the Copper Smelter Plant — is on the land allotted by the first lease.

Why then has SIPCOT not cancelled this lease? The corporation's official direction mentions larger public interest to cancel a lease. This will not stand the test of legal scrutiny as the lease deed sets out reasons for cancellation, one of them being pollution. When the Supreme Court of India has held that Vedanta is a polluter, why is SIPCOT refusing to do the same?

“They can suo motu cancel the first lease on the grounds of pollution or non-compliance," a former SIPCOT managing director said. "They are the body that has the power to do it, and the Tamil Nadu government’s government order means nothing.”

SIPCOT’s current managing director, K Srinivasan, refused to comment on the matter.

Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 19:02:44 IST