Orders for the ‘permanent’ closure of the Sterlite copper smelter plant of the Vedanta group in Thoothukudi town of Tamil Nadu (earlier called Tuticorin) have come not a day too soon.
When it was set up two decades ago, the setting up itself was mired in controversy, with three states—Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa—refusing to allow it to be located in their states due to environmental and health concerns.
Yet, Tamil Nadu opted for it. Off and on there have been agitations against it but recently the controversy over its closure took a violent form when 13 people were killed following police firing on anti-Sterlite protesters last week.
However, despite its toxic nature, whether the closure would stand judicial scrutiny remains to be seen considering that the state government, prone to mismanaging things under the Palaniswami government, did not seemingly undertake due diligence.
It merely said it was bowing to public demand for its closure without dwelling adequately on the harm that it was doing to the environment and to public health. Whether that would be deemed adequate reason for closure of a unit that employs 35,000 people, a large part of them as casual labour, is contestable.
In the beginning, there were protests because the plant was located very close to the Gulf of Mannar, which is a sensitive marine ecosystem.
Despite the evidence from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board that Sterlite was contaminating the groundwater, air and soil with its effluents, no action was taken.
A report published by the Tirunelveli Medical College found high prevalence of asthma, pharangytis, sinusitis and other respiratory tract infections, all proxies for the presence of toxic gases and particular irritants in the lower atmosphere. They also found an inexplicably high incidence of menstrual disorders in women living in the area.
Commissioned in 1997, the Sterlite smelter plant made headlines in 2013 when a gas leak took place leading to the death of one person and injuries to many. The then chief minister late J Jayalalithaa ordered its closure following which, the company moved the National Green Tribunal. With the tribunal overturning the government order, the state moved the Supreme Court against it, and the petition is still pending.
The plant has been shut since March 27 this year, with the company citing the closure as a part of 15-day maintenance. Incidentally, the company had consent to operate the plant until March 31 this year.
Protesters raised concern over the pollution belching out of the copper plant, including issues relating to disposal of copper waste and effluents from the operational unit, demanding its permanent closure.
Vedanta, however, said that the protests were based on false allegations. Through all these years, the company has steadily increased its capacity by over six times from 60,000 tonnes per annum to over 360,000 tonnes per annum, despite constant run-ins with various regulatory bodies, protest groups and activists.
The unit is said to be one of the country’s biggest copper smelters. Vedanta Ltd — a majority-owned subsidiary of London-listed Vedanta Resources.
The Thoothukudi plant accounts for a 40 per cent share in India’s annual copper production of 10 lakh tonnes and its closure could have a downstream impact on around 800 small and medium units in the electrical sector. These include cable manufacturers, winding wire units and transformer manufacturers who sourced from these units. Reports also say that the shutdown is also likely to impact India’s copper exports.
Yet, all these benefits do not entitle the company to ride roughshod over the health and deleterious environmental effects of the plant’s operations.
It goes without saying that if the copper plant is to be useful to society in India, it must be relocated to a place where there is no habitation other than the workers, who too need to have safeguards built into the set-up. Serious environmental concerns of this magnitude cannot be allowed to play with the lives and well-being of people at large.