Sterlite: Brief history of copper plant in TN

By NT Bureau Published on Mar 27, 2018 04:23 PM IST

Chennai: On 24 March, a sea of people, both young and old and not less than 50,000 in numbers flooded the streets of Tuticorin demanding immediate closure of Vedanta's Sterlite Industries.

They gathered to bring attention to the plight of people of the coastal town who had been affected for more than two decades by the poisonous gas and industrial effluents released by Sterlite Industries.

Businesses and services too shut shop voluntarily to offer solidarity and even women, children and students took to the streets, making one reminisce of the Jallikattu protests in Chennai. To understand why people are angry, News Today has gathered and presented Sterlite's notorious history in the region.

STERLITE INDUSTRIES

Sterlite Industries is a copper smelter complex is run by Sterlite Copper, a business unit of Vedanta Ltd, which is a subsidiary of London-based metals manufacturing and mining group, Vedanta Resources Plc. Its owner, Anil Agarwal from Bihar who started as a scrap dealer is now worth 3.3 billion dollars.

KICKED OUT OF MAHARASHTRA

In 1992, Sterlite was allotted 500 acres of land in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra to set up a 60,000 tonne per annum copper smelter and associated facilities by the Maharashtra Government. On 15 July, 1993, Ratnagiri District Collector ordered the company to suspend construction.

After a year-long agitation by local people who were fearful of the pollution likely to be caused by the smelter, the Maharashtra Government appointed a committee which found that such industries would endanger the region's fragile coastal environment.

HOW DID IT ENTER TAMILNADU

In August 1994. within a year of the project being thrown out from Maharashtra, Sterlite managed to get a foot-hold in Tamilnadu as the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) issued them a No Objection Certificate and asked the company to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

On 16 January 1995, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued an Environmental Clearance, allegedly without waiting for the EIA and in May 1995, a Consent to Establish was issued by the TNPCB authorising Sterlite to commence construction. On 14 October, 1996, TNPCB issued the plant a licence to operate.

WERE REGULATIONS MANIPULATED?

Environmental activist, Nithyanand Jayaraman says, 'Considering the ecological sensitivity of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere reserve, the TNPCB NOC conditions stipulate that factory should be located 25 km from the Gulf of Mannar.

However, an exception was made for Sterlite and the plant was built within 14 km of the Gulf of Mannar. So TNPCB has issued them licence to operate ignored its own conditions.'

Reports also say that TNPCB, upon request from the company, had reduced the mandatory green zone to 25 meters from 250 meters.

PROTESTS, BANS & CONTROVERSIES

Within months of starting operations, public started complaining of breathlessness, sore throat, eye irritations and went on a protest against the company. A series of cases were also filed and in November 1998, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) conducted a study and filed a report in Madras High Court on Sterlite's pollution.

On 23 November, 1998, the factory was closed for the first time by the Madras High Court but was re-opened a week later.

The Madras High Court asked NEERI to conduct another study and the plant was given a clean chit.

In 1999, 11 workers at the All India Radio station near Sterlite complained of distress due to a gas leak and had to be hospitalised.

On 22 September 2004, a Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) recommended that environmental clearance for the company's proposed expansion from 391 to 900 tonnes per day (300,000 tonnes per annum) should not be given. But, the next day, the Ministry of Environment & Forests issued an environmental clearance to Sterlite for plants it had already begun to construct.

On 2 April 2013, the Supreme Court agreed with all allegations made by petitioners and the people of Tuticorin,  but refused to shut down the company. It ordered the company to pay a fine of Rs. 100 crores. The Supreme Court argued that: 'The plant of the appellants contributes substantially to the copper production in India and copper is used in defence, electricity, automobile, construction and infrastructure etc. The plant of the appellants has about 1,300 employees and it also provides employment to large number of people through contractors.' It ordered the company to pay a fine of Rs. 100 crores expecting that amount to be a sufficient deterrent.

On 24 March 2018, thousands gathered near the Chidambaram Nagar bus stand in Tuticorin and many other areas demanding halt to the expansion plans of the Sterlite Copper Plant in the district and closure of the existing plant.