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Environmental concern: It was Sterlite; now it's Coromandel. What next in Tamil Nadu?

By NS Venkataraman*
It is reported in the media that around 200 Chennai residents  came together for a demonstration at Besant Nagar  in Chennai on 3rd March,2024 in solidarity with the residents of Ennore, who have been demanding that the fertiliser unit of Coromandel International at Ennore in Chennai should be closed once for all. 
Earlier, there was protest by group of people against the Sterlite Copper project in Tuticorin,  alleging environmental violations. Bowing to the mob demonstration, Tamil Nadu government ordered closure of the Sterlite Copper unit.  Supreme Court has now  pulled down the curtain on Sterlite Copper unit.
Sterlite Copper has consistently denied that it has violated any environmental norms.
In the case of Sterlite Copper,  studies carried out by credible agencies a few years after the closure of Sterlite Copper revealed  that there has been no change for better in the  atmospheric or ecological  conditions in Tuticorin  after closure of Sterlite  Copper and such studies imply that Sterlite has not caused pollution as alleged. 
Several experts with extensive domain knowledge have pointed out that allegations that Sterlite Copper caused spread of cancer and spoiled the sub soil water in Tuticorin area due its operation were unfounded. 
The local people   and the direct and indirect employees who worked in Sterlite Copper who are the real stake holders,  are now demanding that Sterlite Copper should be reopened, as  they think that closure of Sterlite Copper was unwarranted.   They have submitted several representations to state and central government demanding reopening of the Sterlite Copper unit and have also addressed the media. However,  the state government,  which bowed to the mob pressure to close down the unit, pretend to be deaf when peaceful local residents demand reopening of the unit.
 It appears  that learned judges have not heard the views of the local people and the employees of Sterlite Copper who are the real stake holders and have not looked into the conclusions of several investigative studies carried out.
Now, Sterlite Copper has  been forced to  go into history.

It is now Coromandel:

 There  was ammonia gas leak on 26th December,2023 in the gas pipeline, taking ammonia gas to the factory premises of Coromandel International  from the ship, when Migjam cyclone occurred.  Government appointed committee,  which investigated the matter,  clearly said  that the ammonia gas leak happened  due to relocation of heavy granite  boulders around the pipeline due to cyclone Migjam. Obviously, the committee concluded that the leakage was caused   due to the cyclone and not due to any human fault. In other words, the leak occurred  due to reason beyond the control of the company.  The fact is that the leak happened outside the factory premises and the company has recorded over sixty years of safe operations with several modern safety measures  being followed.
The agitators  insist that Coromandel International should be closed once for all.  They are following the same strategy that they adopted in the case of Sterlite Copper and  are organising dharna and other forms of mob protests.

What next?

The fate of Sterlite Copper  was successfully sealed and the fate of Coromandel is now sought to be sealed by the protesters, (some of whom call themselves as environmentalists )  and  they  seem to enjoy the support of  some  political parties  and section of media.  They   want this  chemical factory to be closed unmindful of the consequence of the closure.  They are  demanding such closures  without proper and competent study of the underlying reasons for  the ammonia gas leak that took place  They refuse to listen to reason when it is  pointed out to them that the leak happened due to exceptional circumstances and not due to any dereliction of duty by the company.  and the company   has been  safely operating  for over 60 years now
The  agitators some of whom seem to be professional environmentalists  seem to be very keen to blow the issue out of proportion and get vicarious satisfaction by ensuring closure  of the unit.
Associations representing industry seem to be scared of the professional environmentalists due to their mob strength
There is genuine concern  amongst the  discerning observers  whether the so called environmentalists would target other units also in the coming days.  If so, which unit  would be the next victim in Tamil Nadu?
Where is the voice of chemical industry?
The agitators now get huge media space,  as they   sensationalise the issues.
The technologists,  engineers and managers  associated with the chemical industries who are no less concerned about the environmental issues remain largely silent  as helpless spectators.
Obviously, the associations and other bodies representing the industry seem to be scared of the professional environmentalists due to their mob strength.  While the agitators get media space for whatever accusations they level and without media carefully examining the veracity of such accusations, the  technologists and managers get no such media space  even if they want to speak out their case.   The media highlight the protests but rarely provide space to members of chemical industry to explain their stand   and  the  industries in Tamil Nadu silently face the unjustified onslaught  of being described as violators of environmental norms.

Closures help no one’s cause

Due to the closure of Sterlite Copper,  thousands of direct and indirect employees lost their jobs  and in the unfortunate event of Coromandel International being forced to close,  thousands of indirect and direct employees too would lose their jobs and livelihood.
The government which bows to mob pressure,  perhaps, due to vote bank politics and go to the extent of ordering the closure of chemical unit, do nothing to rehabilitate the  people who lose their jobs due to such closure,  leaving their families high and dry.  The government does not also seem to be unduly concerned about the economic loss to the nation due to such closures
Chemical industry  are conscious  that they should ensure clean environmental conditions. In the case of Sterlite  Copper,  such conditions were maintained reasonably well. In the case of Coromandel, ammonia gas leak happened due to reason beyond the control of the unit. Coromandel is a unit with good shop floor management practices.
It appears that  the agitators target only chemical industry  selectively, even as they ignore  several accidents taking place in other sector   routinely   such as in thermal power plants,   accidents in fire cracker units in Sivakasi and Virudhunagar region,  which are much more ghastly than what happened in Coromandel International. Road, rail   accidents and accidents in air travel happen  and these agitators  do not  demand  that automobile or rail or plane operations should be scrapped. Then, why different yardstick for chemical industry?
Any occasional environmental issue arising in chemical industry should not be seen as the reason for the closure,  as such closure helps no one’s cause. Obviously, in case of any mishap,  causes have to be ascertained and remedial steps should be initiated  to the extent necessary.
Let the agitators know that such closure of unit are suicidal for  the industrial climate, economic stability and  of course job scenario in Tamil Nadu.  The activists  who call themselves  as  environmentalists need to be  more responsible and perhaps, more knowledgeable too.
*Trustee, Nandini Voice For The Deprived, Chennai



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