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In defence of Sterlite Copper: Victim of 'vicarious satisfaction' of environmentalists


By NS Venkataraman*

When the history of India’s industrial developments and growth would be recorded, Sterlite Copper project in Tamil Nadu would certainly get a prominent mention, as case study of a profitable and technologically advanced project being brought down due to sustained campaign against the project by environmental activists ( obviously, sustaining the campaign for long period require fund support), half informed media campaign and vote bank politics of the politicians.
The story of Sterlite Copper is a checkered history of the project shutting and reopening more than once due to the state government’s closure orders , the intervention of the Green Tribunal permitting the project for operation, second time closure order of the state government and court ruling in favour of the project and now court ruling against the project . This story is too recent and well known and therefore, does not need further elaboration in this article.
The present scenario is that the copper smelter plant of Sterlite Copper was closed down by the Tamil Nadu government in May 2018, based on a similar order of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. Sterlite Copper moved the High Court of Madras against the closure and the court gave it’s judgement, upholding the closure.
Now, Sterlite Copper would appeal against the Madras High Court order to the Supreme Court and one would not know as to what would be the verdict of Supreme Court now, though on earlier occasions, Supreme Court has provided conditional approval for the operation of the Sterlite Copper.
Sterlite Copper project in Tuticorin originally involved an investment of over Rs 3000 crore and has been successfully operating for the last several years with consistent track record and made India to be a net exporter of valuable copper metal. As a matter of fact, Sterlite Copper has successfully challenged several multinational copper producers in the international market and brought laurels to India.
Sterlite Copper operated using imported copper concentrate and produced copper wire rods and also has a large sulphuric acid plant of capacity 12 lakh tonne per annum, which is one of the largest sulphuric acid plants in the country.
By way of countering the anti-Sterlite Copper campaign, Sterlite copper has repeatedly pointed out that it has not violated any environmental regulations and has been operating as per the stipulated norms.
One accusation against Sterlite Copper is that it was emitting sulphur dioxide gas beyond permissible level that was alleged to have caused atmospheric pollution in Tuticorin area. Sterlite Copper has denied this and has submitted its records to show that its emission level is much below the permitted level and it has adequate environmental protection equipment such as de sulphurisation units.
The fact is that there are a number of coal based thermal power plants and sulphuric acid plants in Tuticorin, not far away from the Sterlite Copper plant. The coal based thermal power plants in Tuticorin may be emitting sulphur dioxide gas, since they do not have flue gas de sulphurisation units.
It is quite possible that if any sulphur dioxide emission level in Tuticorin has been above normal, it might have been due to the operation of the coal based thermal power plants or other sulphuric acid plant or several other possible reasons such as large scale sea port operations in Tuticorin, heavy vehicle movement using diesel fuel for transportation of goods to and from the port etc.
This has been pointed out even by the Green Tribunal after its investigation. Obviously, with regard to sulphur dioxide emission, Sterlite Copper is sinned against rather than sinning.
Another major issue that was raised against Sterlite Copper was that the operation of the plant caused cancer amongst the local population. This allegation too was effectively countered by Sterlite Copper stating that none of its over 1,000 employees and their families living in the quarters and nearby areas and none of its over 1,000 contract labourers working in Sterlite Copper premises had suffered from cancer.
There are several cancer patients in Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and many other towns and cities in India, where no copper plant is in operation
Several neutral persons also commented that internationally, but there is no conclusive evidence till now about the cause for the cancer disease. It is pointed out that there are several cancer patients in Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and many other towns and cities in India, where no copper plant is in operation.
The activists have alleged ground water contamination due to the operation of the unit. However, Sterlite Copper pointed out that no water is let out and the used water is entirely treated and reused.
Another issue raised was the accumulation of copper slag. Sterlite Copper said that it has sold the slag to an individual who has stored it ten kilometers away. But, the authorities have not allowed the slag to be moved out. Further, the copper slag is allowed to be used in road construction and is not a harmful matter.
One more allegation was that the imported copper concentrate is causing arsenic contamination in the soil. This has not been proved.
In several parts of India such as Midnapur in West Bengal and Shenkotta region in Tamil Nadu which is not far off from Sterlite Copper plant , are known to have arsenic contamination in the sub soil for several decades. Arsenic removal water treatment plants have been in operation in several regions in Tamil Nadu, long before the Sterlite Copper plant was set up at Tuticorin.
Further, the fact is that there are two more copper plants operating in India in other states , where there is no environmental issue raised.
Now, Sterlite Copper plant remains closed and sealed for over two years now. The plant is not far away from the seashore and salty wind from seashore can have a corrosive impact on the plant and machinery, if not maintained properly.
No worthwhile maintenance activity has been carried out to protect the life of the equipment in the Sterlite Copper plant after it was sealed by the Government of Tamil Nadu. No one knows as to what is the condition of the equipment today and what it would cost to reopen the plant, if and when permitted, by carrying out the necessary maintenance activity.
All said and done, Tamil Nadu and India have not gained anything by the closure of the Sterlite Copper and only the environmental activists have derived vicarious satisfaction by raising false allegations and the vote bank politics of Tamil Nadu politicians have yielded results for them.
Thousands of people who were directly and indirectly employed due to Sterlite Copper operations have lost jobs and their families are suffering and Tamil Nadu government has lost income , as this profit generating plant was providing considerable tax revenue to the government. India is losing foreign exchange amounting to several thousand crores of rupees by becoming a net importer of copper , in contrast with the earlier position of net exporter of copper.
Sterlite Copper wanted to expand the capacity of the plant at Tuticorin and necessary permission was granted for this at one time.
In the interest of industrial and economic growth of the state and the country , Tamil Nadu government should order reopening of the existing Sterlite Copper plant after imposing any conditions, if needed in the view of the Tamil Nadu government
Further, Tamil Nadu government can ask the Sterlite Copper unit not to go ahead with the expansion project, until detailed investigation would be completed.
The Tamil Nadu chief minister has been repeatedly making announcements about the commitment of the government to promote the industrial growth of the state and has announced various project schemes, for which MoU has been signed by the Tamil Nadu government with the project promoters.
However, the Tamil Nadu government has conveniently ignored the fact that Tamil Nadu state is being looked upon with suspicion by several prospective project promoters in India and abroad, as it appears that a small group of activists can bring down any project, if they would not be satisfied for whatever reasons and with the state government buckling under the pressure of the activist groups, most of which appear to have political links in transparent manner.
The Koodankulan Nuclear Power project in Tamil Nadu, suffered earlier due to similar reasons and was delayed by several years, resulting in steep project cost. However, the nuclear power plants are now functioning well with no environmental issue, which clearly prove that the protest by the activists against the nuclear power project was unnecessary and counterproductive.
Sterlite Copper is now facing the situation similar to what the Koodankulam Nuclear Power project in Tamil Nadu faced earlier.
---
Trustee, Nandini Voice for The Deprived, Chennai

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