The neem tree in Kumarettiyapuram village in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu was a media attraction in early 2018. Villagers would gather here every day in protest against pollution from the nearby copper smelting plant of Sterlite Copper, a company that is part of the Vedanta Group, and the opening of its second unit.

Anti-Sterlite protests that were until then largely restricted to the townsfolk, especially the fisherman community and environmental activists, soon spread from Kumarettiyapuram village to more than a dozen villages around Sterlite. The protests culminated in the death of 13 people due to police firing, following which the state government closed the plant.

Three years later, as India was dealing with an oxygen crisis during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sterlite Copper offered to supply 1,050 metric tonnes of oxygen a day free of cost for Covid-19 treatment.

This was more than double the projected peak demand for oxygen in Tamil Nadu. But state government records show that oxygen supply from the plant for Covid-19 treatment had not crossed 90 metric tonnes on any day until June 30 since production started on May 13.

Oxygen supply is only among many outreach efforts that Sterlite Copper has undertaken ahead of a Supreme Court hearing of its appeal against the closure order. But public “sentiment” in Thoothukudi is against the opening of the plant, as noted by the Supreme Court in its April 27 order permitting oxygen production.

The Sterlite plant while it was in operation before 2018. Photo credit: Karnan

Pollution, health impacts

Krishnaleela of Kumarettiyapuram, whose house is just next to the neem tree, is banking on the fact that oxygen production has been permitted only until July 30. “July 30, July 30…” she repeats. The Supreme Court had said its order for “permitting the operation of the oxygen plant on a stand-alone basis shall remain in force until July 31, at which point of time, a decision will be taken based on the current state of the pandemic at that time.”

Since starting operations in late 1996, Sterlite has seen protests against the company’s environmental record that included at least two major gas leaks. The plant was forced to shut down several times including due to court intervention but had managed to restart operations and increase its capacity from 40,000 tonnes to nearly 4,00,000 tonnes. Plans were on to double the capacity through a second unit when the protests that culminated in the deaths from police firing in 2018 led to the Tamil Nadu government ordering the plant to close.

In early 2018, Kumarettiyapuram villagers had started to protest when construction lorries going into the factory from a rear gate were spilling sand and dust into the village. Villagers had learned that the second unit was coming up on land close to their village.

“Since then we had lived with breathing troubles, depleted groundwater for which the quality had already deteriorated, and even fertility problems. But when we learned that Sterlite was putting up a second unit near our village and bringing in lorries, we decided to protest,” said A Murugan, a lorry driver of the village.

Three years later, the Supreme Court allowed oxygen production in the plant. The court said, “The plant shall be operated only for the purpose of producing medical grade oxygen and for no other purpose.” Sterlite Copper has appealed against the Tamil Nadu government’s 2018 order closing down the smelter and that appeal is pending in Supreme Court.

The entrance to the Sterlite plant. Photo credit: M Kalyanaraman

Oxygen production

In the month-and-a-half that Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi has been producing oxygen, the plant has supplied a total of some 1,400 tonnes, government records for until the end of June say. The Supreme Court, based on whose order the oxygen production is happening, had noted Sterlite telling the court it can “produce 1050 MT of Oxygen per day, entirely diverted to medical use, free of cost. It is ascertained that it can supply 35 MTs of liquid Medical Grade Oxygen immediately and subsequently increase supply of Liquid Oxygen and Gaseous Oxygen which can be transported to hospitals filled in cylinders”.

The smelting plant at Thoothukudi is neither designed nor equipped to supply large quantities of medical oxygen requiring transportation – in liquid or gaseous form, expert sources told Mongabay-India. Attempts to rev up oxygen supply from the plant have not met with much success.

On the first day of production, the plant produced 4.8 tonnes of liquid oxygen of 98% purity. For the next five days, there was no production, which was attributed to machinery not having been operated for nearly three years. Since then, liquid oxygen supply has slowly increased but has clocked a maximum of only 86 tonnes on a daily basis until June 30.

Sterlite smelter has two oxygen-producing units but only one has been functioning since May 13. Smelters have oxygen-producing plants as the gas helps to increase the temperature and boost the efficiency of the process.

The oxygen production process used in Sterlite is such that liquid oxygen production is only for backup storage. Stored liquid oxygen could be gasified and used in smelting in case the oxygen production process is disrupted, said an expert familiar with Sterlite.

Increasing liquid oxygen production would not serve the purpose of smelting and is ruled out, the expert added. During the process of liquefaction, however, hundreds of tonnes of gaseous oxygen are produced at low pressure and used for smelting. To transport the gaseous oxygen for Covid-19 treatment, it would have to be compressed to high pressures of the range of 150 bars for filling in standard 7 cubic metre cylinders. Sterlite had sought to purchase a new compressor to facilitate this but that never happened, the expert said. Instead smaller portable pumps are being used.

Filling in gaseous form in cylinders started on June 4. Until the end of June, a total of some 10 tonnes were supplied as gaseous oxygen through cylinders to hospitals. Official records show nearly 7,000 cubic metres of gaseous oxygen has been supplied in cylinders until the end of June, which adds to less than 10 tonnes of gaseous oxygen.

Tamil Nadu’s oxygen requirement for Covid-19 treatment that shot up rapidly in April started dipping by May. The government had told the Madras High Court in April that demand would go up to 450 metric tonnes.

Now, the state has a surplus supply of oxygen since the requirement has come down and new plants have been commissioned, said R Kannan, the past president of All India Industrial Gases Manufacturers Association.

Efforts by Mongabay-India to reach the company officials for comments on oxygen production did not yield a response. In the meanwhile, Sterlite Copper has been publishing daily reports on oxygen production on its website. The report, as on July 12, stated that the company has cumulatively produced 1,860.09 metric tonnes of liquid oxygen, while on July 11 it produced 42.71 tonnes of liquid oxygen.

Both the official figures and the company’s figures show that since the time Sterlite started operating its oxygen production unit, it has not been able to reach anywhere close to its committed target of 1,050 tonnes of oxygen per day.

Broader outreach

Besides oxygen supply, Sterlite recently renovated the third floor at the Government Medical College Hospital in Thoothukudi and supplied 70 oxygen-supported beds and 75 of 7,000-litre capacity oxygen cylinders. In Tiruchendur general hospital, the company provided 42 beds, including 32 oxygen-supported beds, along with Covid-care medical equipment.

Several other hospitals and Primary Health Care centers such as those in Madathur, Fatima Nagar and Threspuram, places that saw popular protests against the company, have received corporate social responsibility attention from Sterlite. Nebulisers, oximeters, suctions and BiPAP machines and other Covid-care equipment were supplied, the company has said.

Protest leaders such as Fatima Babu have questioned the appropriateness of Sterlite taking up corporate social responsibility activities when the factory had closed after the deaths.

The outreach has included engagement with villagers around the plant, too – their protests had culminated in the firing and shooting deaths. “They approached my village, T Kumarigiri, and offered to build a temple, plant trees and support our womenfolk with livelihood. But I refused,” said Selvakumar.

Protesters’ apprehension

Meanwhile, those who have been protesting against the Sterlite plant are apprehensive that the company could build upon the permission for opening for the oxygen production to restart the copper smelter. Many protesters and their leaders say it would not have been appropriate to disagree during a national health crisis.

“I have taken part in the protests in all its phases over 25 years,” said Fatima Babu, a former English professor. “I am hoping the Supreme Court closes the plant once and for all by ruling against Sterlite’s appeal.”

In Kumarettiyapuram village, Murugan recalls the 2018 protests. The company was moving ahead in the work of providing shelters and water for hundreds of migrant workers for the second unit right at their doorstep. And Kumarettiyapuram villagers went to Thoothukudi town to protest.

“We felt that not giving up and refusing to leave the protest sites would force the administration to act,” he said.

People in other villages such as Pandarampatti, Meelavittan and Madathur started assembling in one place to protest against Sterlite. Activists who had been fighting against Sterlite joined the villagers and provided leadership.

A large public meeting in Thoothukudi town on March 24 was a turning point. Nearly a month later, to mark the 100th day of protests started by Kumarettiyapuram villagers, protesters marched to the collectorate demanding closure of the factory. The administration had not given permission to the rally. Police fired at the protesters near the collectorate leaving 13 dead and many injured. For many days after the firing, police continued to arrest protesters and lodge them in jail.

The 2018 protest against the copper smelter. Photo credit: Karnan

The Sterlite facility has had a long history of environmental protest. Fishermen in Thoothukudi town had been agitating against the plant on and off since it started in 1997, including blockading ships coming in with copper ore to the Thoothukudi port. Their initial demand was that Sterlite effluents should not be let into the sea that the company agreed not to do.

Villagers, however, felt the factory would mean jobs and contracts but, over time, disillusionment set in among many because of pollution and health problems, said Murugan. “Our air is better now and groundwater has improved although good rains in the last three years have helped,” he said. “We are raising cattle to make up for the loss in income from construction jobs in the plant. We are better off now and do not want the plant back.”

Anti-Sterlite activists have quoted data from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to state that the air quality was better when the plant was closed.

Next to Kumarettiyapuram is Therkuveerapandiyapuram where Mahesh and his brother Rajkumar helped Kumarettiyapuram villagers in the protest. “We have college degrees and are more educated and aware,” said Rajkumar who spent some 60 days in jail after the shooting. “We decided to help.”

Though the new state government has announced the withdrawal of cases, Rajkumar says some of his cases deal with damage to public property and he needs to continue fighting them. “So many unarmed, common people were shot dead in cold blood while protesting against the plant,” he asked. “And still should this factory open?”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.