When we think of any modern convenience that helps simplify and enhance our lives, we think of – the smart phone, the car, the air conditioner, the refrigerator, the washing machine, all of which have been built using elements that come from the earth. Metals form a key ingredient in any modern day machine or electronics, and among metals, copper is that one element that keeps things running by conducting electrons effectively. The important role this unassuming metal plays in keeping the world moving is often forgotten. In a consumer driven economy, the need for extractive industries and natural resource based companies is aligned to the country’s infrastructure ambition.
Among the top 20 copper refineries in the world, Sterlite Copper’s Thoothukudi plant produces approximately 1/3rd of the country’s present demand for copper. With the IMF projecting an economic growth of 7% over the next two years, the Indian market is expected to double within the decade, making the country the third largest consumer market by 2025. Expanding the time horizon to 2040, India is expected to increase its power generation capacity by 900 GW, nearly 50% of which will be in the form of renewable energy. A key element of that growth story will be the easy availability of copper, without which the power sector vision of “Power for All” will remain ‘power-less’. It is pertinent to note that the need for renewable energy of this scale pushes the copper requirement to atleast 4 to 5 times of the current levels. In the absence of domestic producers, this copper will have to be imported and foreign exchange is sure to go out of the country. The Vision of the Tamil Nadu State has also been very aggressive and there is paradigm shift in thinking to promote industries not only in and around major cities such as Chennai, Trichy etc. but also in smaller districts especially such as Thoothukudi, Ramanathapuram etc. To this extent, the state has promoted special packages and incentives for industrialization to happen at a much larger pace and committed to promote investments to the tune of Rs.65,000 crores.
It is this scenario that prompted Sterlite Copper to double its production capacity using state-of-the-art technology. This increased capacity being supplied by a domestic industry will indeed be a testimonial for the people of Tamil Nadu and India.
Sterlite Copper has been operating in Thoothukudi for over twenty years now. Since 2010, the company has contributed approximately INR 11,000 crores to the state exchequer and provided direct and indirect employment to around 4,000 people. The scale of operations enables them to invest in environment control measures for process efficiency and are highly regulated. Till date an investment of more than INR 485 Crores has gone into environment and social measures. They leapfrogged to better technology to ensure that operations are safe for employees, communities and the economy. Sterlite’s social responsibility programs span over 88 villages in Thoothukudi district and more than 60% of the planned social expenses are invested on community health and girl-child education programs.
One of the most commonly cited concerns is that SO2 emissions cause cancer. The “International Agency for Research on Cancer” has classified sulfur-di-oxide as non-carcinogenic to human beings. Sterlite SO2 emissions are maintained well within the prescribed emission norms as stipulated by CPCB and is at par with the best copper smelters across the globe. The stack online analyzer readings of SO2 emissions are monitored in real time by the officials of CPCB and Care Air Centre, TNPCB, Chennai. This is a direct and real-time monitoring system and the plant is technologically interlocked to stop production, in case of any deviations
The second most common myth which gets propagated by learned as well as by the rural masses is that, due to Sterlite’s operations, rainfall in this region is greatly affected. The fact on the other hand is based on the rain fall data received from the National Meteorological Department, Chennai – the annual average rainfall before Sterlite operations started was 569 mm (from 1990 to 1996). However, annual average rainfall after Sterlite operations commencement is 749 mm (1997 to 2015), which shows that there is a 32% increase in rainfall. (India Meteorological Dept. Data: Jan 1990 – Dec. 2009, India Meteorological Dept. Jan 2010 – Mar. 2016)
A fact that is often forgotten or ignored is that Thoothukudi is an industrial cluster, with more than 75 manufacturing units (including thermal power plants, dyeing units, and other larger, medium, and small scale industries). By virtue of their business, each of them generate some kind of emissions and wastes. The five thermal power plants in Thoothukudi have a combined capacity of around 4,000 MW. Sterlite’s captive power plant contributes only 160 MW to that mix. More than half of the 60 companies that operate in Thoothukudi contribute to SO2 and Particulate Matter. All units should be brought under scrutiny to help the state arrive at the exact source of pollution. If pollution is to be addressed, all 60 manufacturing units will have to work together to ensure that Thoothukudi’s air, water and soil remain free from pollution. If the true intention is to preserve the environment, then fair and equal scrutiny of all the power plants need to be carried out.
All that has changed since 2013
Hon’ble Supreme Court has observed from the earlier NEERI reports (1998, 2005) that there were certain deviations in some parameters but also observes that it does not warrant a conclusion that the plant of the appellant will not be able to take remedial steps to improve the environment. Subsequently the company undertook various improvements by way of implementation of NEERI’s 30 conditions and NGT’s 15 recommendations and is operating the plant without any issues since 2013. In addition to the above, for few years in between the plant was being operated under a deemed Consent to Operate. Though the company has applied for renewal within prescribed timelines and paid the required fees the TNPCB had not replied. However, the consent was renewed later and Hon’ble Supreme court found this as a concern and hence asked the company to deposit Rs.100 crores to the District Collector to carry out remedial action in case of any environmental damage is found. So far this fund has not seen any light of utilization for environmental causes but instead only for social welfare measures. This is evidence to indicate that there were no environmental damages that needed to be rectified.
After the 2013 verdict, the company doubled down on improving their environmental performance. They have implemented all recommendations suggested by NEERI and NGT Committee. The result is that today, the smelter in Thoothukudi is one of the best copper smelters in the world. The recent rejection of their CTO is for the want of clarifications from TNPCB. It is not a win or defeat, just a dutiful process.
Two years ago, an Environmental Impact Assessment was carried out to reassure the baseline studies of water, soil and air quality of the region. Against the majority perception, the scientific data proves that their SO2 levels are well within the prescribed national limits and hazardous waste gets transferred to a secured landfill following the CPCB guidelines.
The company is a zero-liquid discharge plant – in simple language, the water utilized is completely recycled back into process, so no water is let out into the sea. The dust extraction system allows capturing of fugitive emissions, which go through a scrubbing process. Sterlite Copper is a Zero Liquid Discharge plant since inception of the plant in the year 1995. The effluent generated from the operations is treated in Effluent Treatment Plants followed by the Reverse Osmosis Plant. The treated water from the RO plant is completely reused in the operations ensuring absolute Zero Discharge. The NGO’s and other local community including Petitioners from MDMK leader Mr.Vaiko, CPI(M) leader Mr. Kanaka Raj and NGO member Mr. Nityanand Jayaram were present along with the NEERI committee members to carry out the inspection at Sterlite Copper, Thoothukudi in 2011.
This team inspected the facility and water samples were collected by them. These samples that they collected were analyzed and found with no marker pollutants.
Over the last 2 months there has been a social media explosion with demands to #bansterlite. There are many half-truths and false facts doing the rounds. We recognize that most people who have joined the protests have done so because they want the right action to be taken. To them, we want to say that every news article will appear true unless one visits the copper plant, speaks to their employees, families and CSR beneficiaries. Behind the hubris of social media and the emerging political slant to the agitation, the voice of the Thoothukudi resident is lost, a voice that Sterlite has been trying to listen to.
The protests turn violent
Sterlite has been trying to get its voice across to their stakeholders, where they respect the right of individuals to gather peacefully to voice their concerns. As employees who are citizens of this country, they share the same right to voice their views.
After weeks of public protests, Sterlite felt there was a need to communicate with all employees, contractors and their families. The purpose was to provide reassurance to them that the operations are safe and of the need to stand together. With no intention to disrupt public services or block arterial roads to make their voice heard, they assembled for a peaceful dharna within the premises of the Sterlite plant. The dharna was attended by a few thousand workers and their families who signed a request petition to be filed to the District Collector. The idea was to take their collective representation to him – and exercise their democratic rights. About 150 employees with their families and children decided to visit the collector. Within minutes of their departure, the news arrived that a bus carrying employees and their families was attacked by a group of protesters who hurled stones at families and the media. Two people got injured and one survived a head injury.
It seems that as the protests continue without any solution, the organizers are losing control of some of their fellow protestors. Our attempts at communicating with Nityanand Jayarama, Fatimah Babu – the two most vocal voices against the company – to resolve the situation are still unattended.
In the business of improving people’s life, copper is the medium that makes it possible for us. Sterlite’s relationship with Tuticorin is symbiotic. Together they have seen a considerable positive change in standard of living of the region. The company states that, “We are as much a resident of Thoothukudi as others – 72% of our employees are from Thoothukudi and Tamil Nadu. We are striving to be responsible leaders and the environment, employees & communities are our prime stakeholders in this journey. We have, and will continue to commit resources to ensure that we continue to operate in a sustainable manner”.
Seeing is believing
The company is reaching out to the neighborhood communities and the leaders of this protest for a dialogue. They do not want to fuel any argument that could increase hostility. Seeing is believing – and hence you should visit the neighboring villages and see for yourself the unread story of Thoothukudi. The company is open to receiving ideas that could lead Thoothukudi towards an economically, socially, and environmentally secure future. People and organizations should join hands with them in deescalating the deadlock and give way to a dialogue. Only then perhaps, can one move towards solutions to very complex problems that plague each and every one of us – from citizens to industrial houses.