Sterlite’s Tuticorin Strategy: Job Creation Trumps Green Laws
The intensified protests over the Sterlite factory in Thoothukudi district of southern Tamil Nadu have lasted more than a hundred days. At least a dozen people have been killed in police firing over two days – 22 and 23 May.
The administration has clamped Section 144 in the district and internet connections have been cut in three districts to cover the adjoining areas. The state government has set up a probe to be conducted by a retired judge of the Madras High Court and the Madurai Bench of the High Court has stayed the proposed expansion of the copper unit.
To understand the seriousness of the issues at stake, it is important to know a bit of the history of this plant which dates back to 1995-96.
When Vedanta Flouted All Environmental Norms, Endangered Lives
After states like Gujarat and Goa turned down a proposal by the Vedanta group to set up the Sterlite unit to produce copper, Maharashtra came forward and allotted 500 acres at Ratnagiri. But because of public protests, the plant could not come up there.
That is when they approached Tamil Nadu, which went out of the way to provide the required facilities. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa laid the foundation stone and a year later, her successor M Karunanidhi gave the final clearance for the project.
The clearance was subject to conditions laid down by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), which were subsequently forgotten. Two stiff conditions said the unit must be located 25 km away from the environmentally sensitive Gulf of Mannar, and a green belt should be created around the plant.
The industry came up within 14 km from the Gulf and no green zone worth the name was created.
So the public protests began way back in 1997 itself. So National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) was asked to undertake a survey and study.
Its 1998 report clearly stated that:
- There was no green belt
- The plant was producing items it was not authorised to
- The ground water around the unit was contaminated with traces of arsenic, lead and aluminium
- There were toxic gas leaks
- The plant was situated 14 km from the Gulf of Mannar
- The unit had reportedly tampered with the monitors of air quality in the area.
Again, there was a controversy. The very next year, NEERI took a U-turn and subsequently final clearance was given for the project. All along, the people in the area and NGOs continued their protests and highlighted the adverse effect on the health of the people.
There are discrepancies in all reports. The critical question remains is if there is any arsenic in the discharge or in the ground water.
All this is history. The agitation now is to close the plant and the matter is before the court. Only the expansion, to double the capacity to 800,000 tonnes a year, has been stayed. The plant employs about 1,300 people, including contract labour. That is no small number for an industry in that region.
Sterlite Protests Likely to Cast a Shadow on State Govt’s 2019 Summit
The state government is preparing to host a Global Investors Summit in early 2019. These developments will cast a shadow on that. Moreover, it has been very difficult for successive governments to get investors interested in the southern districts, where migration of men in search of jobs remains alarmingly high.
The protests against such industries and even the Koodangulam nuclear power projects raises serious concerns.
No Political Party Can Boast of a Clean Track Record
Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisami has alleged that political parties and antisocial elements had taken over the peaceful protest and made it violent, leading to the police firing.
None of the political parties can claim to be "clean" in this controversy. Both the AIADMK and the DMK governments have been in office and did nothing to clean up the mess.
So What's the Way Ahead?
It may not be the best option to close the factory once and for all. The Tuticorin port will be seriously affected because sterlite is a major customer. It accounts for nearly a third of the loading in the port annually.
The stevedore's association of port has also expressed concern at the loss of businesss because of the shut down of the sterlite plant since 27 March. A closure will send out the wrong signal to industry and investors. In fact, on the orders of the TNPCB, power connection to the unit was cut off on 24 May.
What the government can do, in consultation with the affected people, is to set up a committee of experts to study the issues in depth and offer solutions.
Since neither the NEERI nor the TNPCB inspire any confidence among the people, a dependable and credible agency or laboratory has to be identified to carry out the tests.
The industry must be made to implement the recommendations and take corrective measures before resuming operations. After all the country needs copper.
(Chennai-based V Jayanth is a former senior managing editor of The Hindu. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)