Environmental protest

‘Every house has a sick person’: Why people in Tuticorin are opposing Vedanta’s copper smelter

Residents of the Tamil Nadu town and surrounding villages blame the factory for polluting their water and air, thereby causing a range of health problems.

S Pasupathi, 25, starts her day administering four different medicines to her two-year-old son Harish, who suffers from incessant wheezing and chest congestion. She and her husband Selva Raj, a welder in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, need to take the child to hospital every week, spending around Rs 1,000 on his treatment and medicines. “He was fine until a year ago,” said Pasupathi, carrying the restless child on her hip. “The doctors say living in the vicinity of the Sterlite plant is the problem, but they do not write that down as the reason for his wheezing.”

The plant she is referring to is a copper smelter of Sterlite Copper, a unit of Vedanta, one of the world’s largest mining and metals conglomerate. Set up in 1996, it lies at the edge of Tuticorin town and has the capacity to produce 4,38,000 tonnes of copper anodes per annum, or 1,200 tonnes a day. Sterlite plans to expand it into the world’s largest smelter in a densely populated area. Over 4.6 lakh people live in eight census towns and 27 villages within a 10-km radius of the plant, according to the project’s Environment Impact Assessment report of 2015.

For over two decades now, activists in Tuticorin have been accusing Sterlite of contaminating the region’s air and water resources. According to the Environment Impact Assessment report, the smelter’s main pollutants are sulphur dioxide and particulate matter. People living around the plant said they were initially unaware of its harmful effects, but have come to hold it as the chief cause of their ill health. “In every household of our village, at least a couple of people are suffering from some kind of illness,” said Selva Raj. “Children are the worst affected.”

In January this year, when they heard Sterlite was planning to double the smelter’s capacity by setting up another plant, fears around their health and safety grew stronger and they launched an agitation. It is centred around Kumarredyapuram village, which lies off a dusty road a short drive from the plant. For about two months, the villagers and activists supporting them have been gathering in the shade of a neem tree, holding large banners calling for the government to shut down the plant. On February 12, they took their demonstration to Tuticorin. There, it grew into a massive protest as around two lakh people, according to the activists, turned out in their support on March 24. Since then, several celebrities, mediapersons and politicians have visited Kumarredyapuram in a show of support.

The protest in Kumareddyapuram village started in January. Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan
The protest in Kumareddyapuram village started in January. Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan

‘We taste pollutants’

In Kumarredyapuram, the villagers alleged that pollutants from the Sterlite factory were causing breathing disorders, skin diseases, heart conditions and cancer, among other health problems. “It starts with throat irritation, then breathing difficulties and asthma, then we get fits and wheezing,” said Maheshwari, a 35-year-old resident. “Most women here also suffer from extreme pain during their menstrual cycle.”

“We are only now moving away from superstition and starting to understand the science behind diseases,” said S Sundaramoorthy, an active protestor in the village. “We are now realising that asthma and wheezing could be due to the environment we live in.”

The signs had always been there, though. “We could taste the pollutants in the water,” said Baby, a 28-year-old villager, adding that they have stopped using groundwater altogether. “We cannot even rinse our mouths with the water anymore.”

In the town, Pasupathi suspects her mother, who died of cancer last year, may have fallen victim to the smelter.

Sterlite officials have often claimed that there is no evidence to link the factory to illnesses among the people living around it. But Nityanand Jayaraman of the environmental non-profit Chennai Solidarity Group has disputed this assertion, writing that a study by the Tirunelveli Medical College in 2008 had proved otherwise but it was deliberately kept under wraps. The study, which covered 80,725 people residing within a 5-km radius of the smelter, found 13.9% of the population suffering from respiratory diseases. “The attributable cause is...the presence of gases, mixture of gases and particulate matter,” the study found. A large number of women reported menstrual disorders but the researchers stated that an “in-depth study” was required to identify the cause for this.

The study was designed well, said Dr Rakhal Gaitonde, a public health researcher, but it lacked in-depth analysis. As such, it did not offer a robust idea of the health effects of copper smelters. “At gut level, it makes a lot of sense that people living next to industries that are openly flouting safety norms will suffer from ill health,” he said. “The problem is when you sit down to do a study, you have to deal with statistical data. But local communities rarely have the resources to conduct such in-depth studies to prove negative impacts of pollution. Why doesn’t the industry prove it is not the cause? The industry uses a lack of evidence to say that there is no problem in the area.”

Scroll.in emailed questions about the 2008 study and its findings to Sterlite, but they went unanswered.

Sterlite Copper lies on the Madurai bypass road in Tuticorin. Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan
Sterlite Copper lies on the Madurai bypass road in Tuticorin. Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan

History of violations

Fatima Babu, an environmental activist who has been campaigning against the Sterlite factory for 20 years, called it “a gross violator of all laws” since the inception. The Water Act of 1974, for example, mandates that hazardous industry should be located at least 25 kilometres away from any eco-sensitive area, but Sterlite’s plant is within 14 kilometres of the marine national park of the Gulf of Mannar. Another violation, she said, is that the plant does not have a greenbelt of 25 metres around it, as required by its licence from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. In its 2013 application for an environmental clearance, however, the company claimed that it had cultivated a greenbelt around its upcoming plant. Scroll.in could not independently verify this claim. Questions sent to the company regarding this are awaiting a response.

Since 1998, Babu said, the factory has been shut several times for violating pollution norms, only to be allowed to reopen in a few days. “It was the fact that they kept getting away with impunity that angered many of us,” she said.

The 2008 study, for instance, found that iron content in the water sources of two villages near the plant was up to 20 times more than is prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards.

In 2012 and 2013, there were several instances of the factory releasing excessive amounts of sulphur dioxide. Residents of Tuticorin particularly remember a gas leak in March 2013 after which many townspeople complained of eye irritation, suffocation and even miscarriage. In response, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ordered the plant shut for two and a half months and launched an investigation. But in July 2013, the National Green Tribunal allowed the factory to reopen.

On April 2, 2013, though, the Supreme Court, deciding a separate case, fined Sterlite Rs 100 crore for polluting the environment. In its judgement, the court said:

“We are of the view that the appellant company should be held liable for a compensation of Rs 100 crores for having polluted the environment in the vicinity of its plant and for having operated the plant without a renewal of the consents by the TNPCB for a fairly long period and according to us, any less amount, would not have the desired deterrent effect on the appellant-company.”

Yet, Sterlite has insisted that its operations in Tuticorin have little impact on the environment. In its Environment Impact Assessment report for the upcoming plant too, the company said “no waste water will be discharged outside the plant due to complete recycling into the plant operations. Hence, there is no impact on the water regime due to the wastewaters generated from the plant complex.” Its emissions too would conform to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The company said it would spend over a fifth of the plant’s total cost – Rs 585 crore – on environmental protection.

The proposed location of Sterlite's proposed new plant on Tuticorin Masterplan. Image courtesy Chennai Solidarity Group
The proposed location of Sterlite's proposed new plant on Tuticorin Masterplan. Image courtesy Chennai Solidarity Group

Not giving up

Since it was notified to be built in 1993, people in and around Tuticorin have been fiercely opposed to the Sterlite factory’s development and expansion. Occasionally, over the years, protests would erupt, said Rajkumar, a 24-year-old ward boy at a Tuticorin health centre, “but each time they would fizzle out either because of police crackdown or because political parties supporting us would suddenly turn on us”.

Most recently on February 10 this year, Kumarredyapuram’s villagers approached the district collector to act against the company, but to no avail. Activists, in fact, have accused the district administration of being complicit in the company’s violations. It upcoming plant, they pointed out by way of example, is being built on “dry agriculture” land according to the Tuticorin Masterplan in violation of the law. Asked about this, M Veerappan, the district revenue officer, said he was not authorised to comment on the matter.

Still, the protestors are determined not to give up. As Rajkumar pointed out, they do not have much of a choice. “The educated among us need to be present to clearly explain the struggles we face everyday because of this plant,” he said.

This is the second part of a series on Vedanta Limited’s copper smelter project in Tuticorin. The first part can be read here.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The next Industrial Revolution is here – driven by the digitalization of manufacturing processes

Technologies such as Industry 4.0, IoT, robotics and Big Data analytics are transforming the manufacturing industry in a big way.

The manufacturing industry across the world is seeing major changes, driven by globalization and increasing consumer demand. As per a report by the World Economic Forum and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd on the future of manufacturing, the ability to innovate at a quicker pace will be the major differentiating factor in the success of companies and countries.

This is substantiated by a PWC research which shows that across industries, the most innovative companies in the manufacturing sector grew 38% (2013 - 2016), about 11% year on year, while the least innovative manufacturers posted only a 10% growth over the same period.

Along with innovation in products, the transformation of manufacturing processes will also be essential for companies to remain competitive and maintain their profitability. This is where digital technologies can act as a potential game changer.

The digitalization of the manufacturing industry involves the integration of digital technologies in manufacturing processes across the value chain. Also referred to as Industry 4.0, digitalization is poised to reshape all aspects of the manufacturing industry and is being hailed as the next Industrial Revolution. Integral to Industry 4.0 is the ‘smart factory’, where devices are inter-connected, and processes are streamlined, thus ensuring greater productivity across the value chain, from design and development, to engineering and manufacturing and finally to service and logistics.

Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, artificial intelligence and Big Data analytics are some of the key technologies powering Industry 4.0. According to a report, Industry 4.0 will prompt manufacturers globally to invest $267 billion in technologies like IoT by 2020. Investments in digitalization can lead to excellent returns. Companies that have implemented digitalization solutions have almost halved their manufacturing cycle time through more efficient use of their production lines. With a single line now able to produce more than double the number of product variants as three lines in the conventional model, end to end digitalization has led to an almost 20% jump in productivity.

Digitalization and the Indian manufacturing industry

The Make in India program aims to increase the contribution of the manufacturing industry to the country’s GDP from 16% to 25% by 2022. India’s manufacturing sector could also potentially touch $1 trillion by 2025. However, to achieve these goals and for the industry to reach its potential, it must overcome the several internal and external obstacles that impede its growth. These include competition from other Asian countries, infrastructural deficiencies and lack of skilled manpower.

There is a common sentiment across big manufacturers that India lacks the eco-system for making sophisticated components. According to FICCI’s report on the readiness of Indian manufacturing to adopt advanced manufacturing trends, only 10% of companies have adopted new technologies for manufacturing, while 80% plan to adopt the same by 2020. This indicates a significant gap between the potential and the reality of India’s manufacturing industry.

The ‘Make in India’ vision of positioning India as a global manufacturing hub requires the industry to adopt innovative technologies. Digitalization can give the Indian industry an impetus to deliver products and services that match global standards, thereby getting access to global markets.

The policy, thus far, has received a favourable response as global tech giants have either set up or are in the process of setting up hi-tech manufacturing plants in India. Siemens, for instance, is helping companies in India gain a competitive advantage by integrating industry-specific software applications that optimise performance across the entire value chain.

The Digital Enterprise is Siemens’ solution portfolio for the digitalization of industries. It comprises of powerful software and future-proof automation solutions for industries and companies of all sizes. For the discrete industries, the Digital Enterprise Suite offers software and hardware solutions to seamlessly integrate and digitalize their entire value chain – including suppliers – from product design to service, all based on one data model. The result of this is a perfect digital copy of the value chain: the digital twin. This enables companies to perform simulation, testing, and optimization in a completely virtual environment.

The process industries benefit from Integrated Engineering to Integrated Operations by utilizing a continuous data model of the entire lifecycle of a plant that helps to increase flexibility and efficiency. Both offerings can be easily customized to meet the individual requirements of each sector and company, like specific simulation software for machines or entire plants.

Siemens has identified projects across industries and plans to upgrade these industries by connecting hardware, software and data. This seamless integration of state-of-the-art digital technologies to provide sustainable growth that benefits everyone is what Siemens calls ‘Ingenuity for Life’.

Case studies for technology-led changes

An example of the implementation of digitalization solutions from Siemens can be seen in the case of pharma major Cipla Ltd’s Kurkumbh factory.

Cipla needed a robust and flexible distributed control system to dispense and manage solvents for the manufacture of its APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients used in many medicines). As part of the project, Siemens partnered with Cipla to install the DCS-SIMATIC PCS 7 control system and migrate from batch manufacturing to continuous manufacturing. By establishing the first ever flow Chemistry based API production system in India, Siemens has helped Cipla in significantly lowering floor space, time, wastage, energy and utility costs. This has also improved safety and product quality.

In yet another example, technology provided by Siemens helped a cement plant maximise its production capacity. Wonder Cement, a greenfield project set up by RK Marbles in Rajasthan, needed an automated system to improve productivity. Siemens’ solution called CEMAT used actual plant data to make precise predictions for quality parameters which were previously manually entered by operators. As a result, production efficiency was increased and operators were also freed up to work on other critical tasks. Additionally, emissions and energy consumption were lowered – a significant achievement for a typically energy intensive cement plant.

In the case of automobile major, Mahindra & Mahindra, Siemens’ involvement involved digitalizing the whole product development system. Siemens has partnered with the manufacturer to provide a holistic solution across the entire value chain, from design and planning to engineering and execution. This includes design and software solutions for Product Lifecycle Management, Siemens Technology for Powertrain (STP) and Integrated Automation. For Powertrain, the solutions include SINUMERIK, SINAMICS, SIMOTICS and SIMATIC controls and drives, besides CNC and PLC-controlled machines linked via the Profinet interface.

The above solutions helped the company puts its entire product lifecycle on a digital platform. This has led to multi-fold benefits – better time optimization, higher productivity, improved vehicle performance and quicker response to market requirements.

Siemens is using its global expertise to guide Indian industries through their digital transformation. With the right technologies in place, India can see a significant improvement in design and engineering, cutting product development time by as much as 30%. Besides, digital technologies driven by ‘Ingenuity for Life’ can help Indian manufacturers achieve energy efficiency and ensure variety and flexibility in their product offerings while maintaining quality.

Play

The above examples of successful implementation of digitalization are just some of the examples of ‘Ingenuity for Life’ in action. To learn more about Siemens’ push to digitalize India’s manufacturing sector, see here.

This article was produced on behalf of Siemens by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.