The Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu | File Photo: PTI
The closure of the Vedanta group's Sterlite Copper smelter plant at Thoothukudi, 600 km from Tamil Nadu capital, would remove a third of domestic production, argues the company. It would also hit downstream copper industries, chemical industries and local businesses, said P Ramnath, chief executive of Sterlite Copper.
The facility, with capacity to produce around 400,000 tonnes a year of refined copper, was also exporting. It was ordered by the state government to be permanently shut down, in the wake of police firing on protesting villagers in the vicinity in May, killing 11. The protests were at pollution.
At a discussion here, Ramnath denied the pollution charges. He said the major pollutant in the region was several thermal power plants of around 4,000 Mw combined capacity, responsible for 99 per cent of the sulphur dioxide in the region. Closure has meant loss of Rs 20 billion to the public exchequer; around three per cent of Tamil Nadu's Gross State Domestic Product is from the facility, said Ramnath.
“A total (annual) turnover of Rs 600 billion is affected," he said. Over 400 businesses, many from first-generation entrepreneurs faced closure with the shutdown of Sterlite Copper. Several chemical and fertiliser companies
were getting sulphuric acid and phosphoric acid at a low rate from the company, he said, as a byproduct of refining copper.
As for jobs, said Ramnath, at least 100,000 employees are affected directly and indirectly all over Tamil Nadu; at stake was the livelihood of about 400,000 people.
The facility, contends Ramnath, is a zero liquid discharge smelter plant.
Also, many of the allegations raised by opponents of the unit had been declared closed by the Supreme Court (SC) order of 2013, which allowed the plant to operate while asking it to deposit Rs 1 billion with the state government for steps to protect the environment. “The SC directed the government to use the interest from the Rs 1 billion we paid into action to protect the environment. The interest alone is around Rs 400 million and only Rs 40 million has been spent, and only to construct roads,” he alleged.
D Nagasaila, an environmental advocate who has been arguing for remedial steps at Thoothukudi, says for those in the neighbourhood, pollution is a reality. In the panel discussion (moderated by former national security advisor M K Narayanan, she alleged the state pollution control board had colluded with the firm to ease various norms earlier stipulated under the environmental regulations for the plant.