An Unrepentant Polluting History: Sterlite Copper Plant, TN

Written by Abdul Jabbar,N.D Jayaprakash | Published on: May 25, 2018
The Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan (BGPMUS) & the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) express their shock and dismay at the mindless killing of 12 protestors in Thoothukudi, who were demanding the closure of the Sterlite Copper plant over pollution concerns. BGPMUS & BGPSSS, as organizations representing the cause of the victims of the Bhopal gas leak disaster of 02/03 December 1984, are acutely aware of the grievous damage that toxic gases and contaminants could inflict on people and the environment.

Sterlite Copper Plant
Image: Reuters
 
The alarming developments at Thoothukudi is a reminder that even 34 years after the Bhopal disaster adequate precautions have not been taken by the State agencies to prevent industries from polluting the environment and to safeguard the people from toxic gases and other contaminants.
 
Sterlite Copper, the 1200 tonne per day (400,000 tonne per year) copper smelter complex, is a unit of Vedanta Limited – a subsidiary of the London-based multi-national Vedanta Resources Public Limited Company. It was established in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, in 1997, i.e., 13 years after the Bhopal disaster after failing to set-up the same in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, in 1992 due to public protests. While the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) issued a No Objection Certificate in August 1994 contingent upon the company carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) reportedly gave Environmental Clearance to the company in January 1995 even without an EIA. Subsequently, in May 1995, TNPCB issued the Consent to Establish certificate to Sterlite Copper to commence construction. Finally in October 1996, TNPCB issued the License to Operate that enabled Sterlite Copper to begin operations despite non-fulfillment of various requisite safety norms.
 
The failure to regulate and monitor the use of various toxic chemicals and metals at the plant soon led to contamination of air, soil and water sources in and around the plant.  Incidents of toxic gas releases were reported as early as May, July and August 1997.
 
After the matter was brought to the attention of the Madras High Court, under the directions of the Court, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, submitted a Report to the Court in November 1998, which reportedly stated that Sterlite Copper:

·         “had failed to develop a greenbelt;
·         was producing products it was not authorised to;
·         had contaminated the groundwater with arsenic, lead, selenium, arsenic, aluminium and copper;
·         may have tampered with the online air monitors;
·         had caused gas leaks that hurt people in Ramesh Flowers and the TNEB office;
·         had located itself 14 km from notified islands in the Gulf of Mannar, thereby violating the    
          condition laid out in Consent to Establish.”
 
[Source: Nityanand Jayaraman, “History of Sterlite in Thoothukudi: A story of betrayal by crony regulators” at:https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/history-sterlite-thoothukudi-story-betrayal-crony-regulators-78481  (26 March 2018) & “Sterlite – here’s proof: The data on how the smelter is likely cause for water pollution” at: https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/sterlite-here-s-proof-data-how-smelter-likely-cause-water-pollution-79055  (05 April 2018)]; Also see: Ilangovan Rajasekaran, “Saga of a struggle” at:http://www.frontline.in/the-nation/saga-of-a-struggle/article10106626.ece#test (April 27, 2018)]
 
As a result, vide Order dated November 23, 1998, the Madras High Court ordered the closure of the factory. However, within a week, the same Court vide Order dated 01 December 1998, modified its earlier Order and allowed the plant to operate and directed NEERI to carry out another study. Since then the plant was forced to close down due to complaints on numerous occasions but subsequently reopened as a result of the conciliatory attitude of the regulatory agencies.
 
The root of the present crisis can be traced to the year 2010 when the Madras High Court, after acceding to the NEERI report and observing that 
“The materials on record show that the continuing air pollution being caused by the noxious effluents discharged into the air by the respondent company is having a more devastating effect on the people living in the surroundings”,
 
directed the closure of the plant vide Order dated September 28, 2010. However, after the company went on appeal to the Supreme Court, within three days the Supreme Court stayed the High Court order on October 1, 2010. Later, through an Order dated April 2, 2013, the Supreme Court did impose a fine of Rs.100 crores on the company but allowed it to continue operations.
 
[A company like Sterlite would be more than willing to pay a fine of mere Rs.100 crores than abide by stringent safety norms.] Nevertheless, it is significant that the Supreme Court did make the following observations in its Order dated April 2, 2013:
“The NEERI reports of 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2005 show that the plant of the appellant did pollute the environment through emissions which did not conform to the standards laid down by the TNPCB under the  Air Act and through discharge of effluent which did not conform to the standards laid down by the TNPCB under the Water Act …”
 
The Supreme Court in the same Order also observed that:
 
“For such damages caused to the environment from 1997 to 2012 and for operating the plant without a valid renewal for a fairly long period, the appellant-company obviously is liable to compensate by paying damages…”
 
Furthermore the Supreme Court made it clear that:
 
“By this judgment, we have only set aside the directions of the High Court in the impugned common judgment and we make it clear that this judgment will not stand in the way of the TNPCB issuing directions to the appellant-company, including a direction for closure of the plant, for the protection of environment in accordance with law.
 
[See: Supreme Court Order dated April 2, 2013 in Civil Appeal Nos.  2776-2783 of 2013 at: https://indiankanoon.org/doc/26352158/
 
Meanwhile, it may be noted, the company had put forward plans as early as 2010 to double its production capacity to 800,000 tonnes annually. Another major poisonous gas-leak in March 2013 had also forced the District Administration to order the closure of the plant. However, the company was let off the hook after the State government failed to establish the source of the gas leak.
 
According to Frontline:
 
“One of the important issues that revived the agitation is people’s concerns over the health hazards posed by environmental pollution. These included breathlessness and other respiratory problems, burning sensation in the eyes and nose, and an increase in the number of cancer cases, all this especially among those living in the vicinity of the plant.”
 
All sections of the local community, including the influential Merchants Association and the Tuticorin Chamber of Commerce, have come together to oppose the machinations of the company. The entire town and surrounding areas was completely shut down on 24 March 2018 in support of the residents of a local village, who were on a sit-in strike for over 60 days demanding the closure of the plant. Over the last 20 years, the company has been adopting all kinds of dubious tactics to create dissentions within the ranks of the agitators including use of agent provocateurs and unleashing of communal riots. While such wily tactics did create fissures among the aggrieved at times, the entire community in and around Thoothukudi has now resolved to stand up against the company.  
 
It is the failure of the various state agencies, including the Ministry of Environment & Forests, the TNPCB and the State Government, to take timely action and uphold the laws of the land that has resulted in the present crisis. The fact that the local police actually opened fire on 22 & 23 May 2018 with the intension to kill the agitators is indeed alarming. Moreover, the information that one of the policemen, who was involved in the firing, had undergone training in Israel raises serious question about the kind of training that is imparted to them in Israel. Are the Indian policemen being trained in Israel to imbibe the same brutal methods, which the Zionists employ on the hapless Palestinians?    
 
Under the circumstances, BGPMUS & BGPSSS demand: (1) closure of the Sterlite Copper plant until all foolproof safety and monitoring mechanisms are in place; (2) a thorough and detailed investigation into the health status of the population in and around the company; (3) a detailed investigation into the current status of air, soil & ground-water in and around the plant; (4) stringent punishment to all those responsible for failing to implement safety norms and for failing to monitor the violation of safety norms; (5) stringent punishment to all those who willfully violated safety norms; (6) adequate compensation to all the dead and injured as a result of the operation of the plant and in the various agitations; and (7) immediate steps to stop attempts to brutalize the police force by forcing them to undergo dehumanizing training in Israel.
 
BGPMUS & BGPSSS welcome the decision of the Madras High Court to stay the attempted expansion of the company and to hold public consultation on the matter.
 
BGPMUS & BGPSSS mourn the senseless loss of lives and convey their heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. We also wish speedy recovery to all the injured.
 
(Both writers are Conveners of the BGPMUS)