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Sterlite Copper case suggests corporate ways to 'legalize' environmental wrongdoings

By Karthik AS* 

On May 22, 2018, 15 civilians were shot dead by the district police protesting against the Vedanta Sterlite Copper plant in Tuticorin that supposedly been disposing off harmful effluent directly into the surrounding. Three years on, still, justice evades the lost lives. Nityanand Jayaraman, an activist and writer, based out of Chennai, who reports on corporate abuses of the environment and effects on human rights, narrates the fight from the community's perspective.
Jayaraman played the lead role in the protest against the Sterlite Copper plant in Tuticorin. He has been raising his voice against the Sterlite Copper plant for 15 years and studying the consequence on the environment.
Sterlite copper plant drew national attention because shutting down the copper plant directly impacted the country's copper demand. The series of events turned India from copper exporter to copper importer.
Copper smelters are polluting in nature. The copper plant produces harmful byproducts like sulfur dioxide, Iron, etc. These products cannot be easily disposed off into the environment since it causes huge damage to the ecosystem. So ideally, Copper manufacturing plants should be located far away from sensitive receptors like populated areas, agricultural land, or water source.
The Sterlite Copper plant was supposed to be located in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. Vedanta Ltd had invested around Rs 500 crore in the Ratnagiri plant. People in Ratnagiri protested against the plant because of the polluting nature of the copper smelters. A committee headed by Rashmi Mayur reported that the copper plant would impact the Mango plantation and fisheries in that region. So, the Sterlite copper plant had to be relocated to Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu.
Sipcot industrial sector in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, was chosen to set up the Vedanta Sterilite copper plant. Sipcot industrial sector was meant for general industries (nonpollution) as per the town planning master plan. Still, the pollution control board granted the copper plant the permit to start operation.
The No Objection Certificate issued by the pollution control board of Tamil Nadu said that the Vedanta Sterlite copper plant had to plant a green belt cover of 200m width. In reality, Nityanand said that there was no cover of the green belt of trees surrounding the copper manufacturing plant.
Narrating the story of Sterlite Copper plant Nityanand said that in 1996, the Sterlite copper plant began its operation. As a first consequence of the plant, 26 women were hospitalized due to a gas leak who worked in the nearby Ramesh flowers cottage industry, which deals with dry flowers.
Following this, in 1998, All India Radio staff falls ill. Up to 2004, the company had managed to expand the copper plant easily. In 2013, there was a gas leak from the plant; the issue was taken up to the National Green Tribunal. It was evident the smokestack detector registered a spike when the gas leak took place, which lasted up to 40 minutes.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) gave clean chit, and people lost all hopes in the government. In 2018, the simmering anger, descent, helplessness resulted in a 100-day struggle by the people of Tuticorin. It ended on May 22 when protestors went to the collector's office sat down on protest.
When the district collector and the superintend of police were absent at the site, the shooting happened, and 15 people lost their lives. Finally, on May 28, the Tamil Nadu government ordered the copper factory to shut down. Meanwhile, Nityanand said that the soil and groundwater were contaminated surrounding the copper plant. People did not have any support from the government in fighting against the environmental consequence of the Sterlite copper plant.
As per Nityanand, the government should be held accountable. Government should work to uphold the citizen's interests. People's voices need to be heard in a democracy. He said that rich people's voices matter more as they can persuade their opinions through their strength.
Nityanand, while referring to the regulatory infrastructure, said that in India, there is no separation between the pollution control board and the government. The representatives of the pollution control board don't have enough expertise in environmental engineering.
India needs more investment in the regulatory mechanisms so that illegal activities can be easily identified and punished. The regulatory body also needs more independence and accountability. The law should give stringent punishment should be given to the rule-breakers.
Nityanand explained the profit-making nature of the corporates and said that the corporates are losing their conscience as managers don't think of the consequences of the action. Pointing at the loop of Environmental Impact Assessment 2020, Nityanand said that if the corporates violate the law, there are ways to legalize the wrongdoings.
The power of corporates is huge as they have monetary power in ads, etc., but protesters are fighting for their cause on the streets. This shows the government's value system, the amount of preference they give to the environment, people's health, and the nation's economy.
Nityanand expressed his thoughts about the media, which does not have the liberty to speak the truth due to corporate and government influence. Speaking about the current circumstance, Nityanand said that anybody who questions the government is labeled as misled or portrayed with the image of anti-national. The culture has developed where the asking question is criminalized.
Concluding his views on the loopholes in the Indian system, Nityanand said that life on earth would end soon if we don't consider the environmental consequences while making important decisions that affect nature.
Privileged people need to raise their voices against the wrongdoings of both government and the corporates. We need united efforts from all sections of society to sustainably work towards growth and preserve nature for future generations.
---
PGP, Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore 2020-22

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