At around 5.30 pm on May 28, the Tamil Nadu government announced its decision to permanently shut down a 4,00,000 tonne per day copper plant run by Sterlite Copper, a subsidiary of Vedanta, in Thoothukudi, bringing a sense of relief and accomplishment to lakhs of residents.
But it is not a done deal, though. The government’s order may not survive a legal challenge from Sterlite unless it is strengthened by citing the plant’s numerous violations of law over the years. Even if the order survives the appeals process, a number of matters would remain contested for years unless the government moves decisively.
For the government to be able to defend its decision, it must ignore advice from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. For 22 years, the board and the central environment ministry have colluded with Sterlite, allowing it to operate an under-designed factory. In its order of April 9, 2018 rejecting the renewal of Sterlite’s Consent to Operate, the board presented pathetically weak reasons to support its decision. Instead of citing Sterlite’s serious legal violations, the pollution regulator chose easily reparable ones. The reason: both the board and the environment ministry are party to the company’s serious violations.
For instance, Sterlite expanded the smelter in 2007 claiming that it had 172 hectares of land to install the infrastructure required to handle the additional pollution. It has only managed to show 102.5 hectares till date, yet successive inspection reports of pollution board and the environment ministry have failed to highlight this inconsistency.
Further, the board has allowed the company to operate with heavily under-designed pollution mitigation infrastructure. As against the legal requirement of a 123-metre-high chimney stack, the plant operates with a 60-metre stack. Improperly designed stacks prevent proper dispersion of air pollutants, which would explain the complaints against the smelter of causing heavy air pollution.
Facing a tough task
In the case of Union Carbide in Bhopal or Unilever in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, shutting down the factory proved to be the easier task, with the governments showing no political will to hold the company accountable thereafter. In Sterlite’s case too, getting it to clean up the contaminated environment, including the heavily polluted factory premises, compensate the affected people or rehabilitate the workers who lost jobs for no fault of theirs, will take some doing.
Indeed, even at this stage, the government has not acknowledged the pollution caused by Sterlite, the impact its operations have had on the health of people, or the inherent illegality of the factory. The Sterlite plant falls in the “Red category” of hazardous industry, which can only be set up in areas demarcated as “Special Industries and Hazardous Use Zone”. Yet, Sterlite’s factory is located in a zone that is partly demarcated for “general or light industries” and partly for “agricultural use”.
So, unless the Tamil Nadu government follows up its order with a reasoned justification, based on science and evidence, for the factory’s closure, it would be betraying Thoothukudi’s residents. The opposition parties need to push for the Assembly to pass a unanimous resolution backing the government’s decision to shut down the Sterlite factory as the logical step to take for the state’s well-being.
Nityanand Jayaraman, a writer and social activist based in Chennai, has been involved with the struggle against Sterlite’s smelter in Thoothukudi since 2003.