Vedanta's smelting plant in Tamil Nadu feels the heat of protesters again

Villagers living near the Sterlite Copper plant in Tuticorin blame the factory for polluting their water and air
What started nearly two months ago in Kumarettiyapuram, a village 600 km off Chennai, has now spread to other regions in the neighbourhood. Every day people from these villages gather on the streets to protest against the $11.5-billion Vedanta Group’s copper smelting plant, and demand an immediate halt to all expansion activity being carried out by the group. The villagers see the smelting plant, which has been running for two decades, as nothing more than a health hazard.

“Our kids are suffering from wheezing. At night the factory releases noxious gas that suffocates us, and our water is not drinkable anymore, it is so contaminated,” says S Lakshmi, a housewife from nearby village Silverpuram . 

A doctor treating patients at a medical camp in Kumarettiyapuram, the nerve centre of the protest, says most villagers complain of headache, anaemia, skin infections, numbness in arms and legs, ear pain and giddiness. However, as no conclusive study has been carried out to link their health symptoms with the effluents released by the plant, villagers are relying on personal experience to make their case. They say when the plant is closed for a month in March for maintenance, their eye irritation reduces and their children don’t wheeze as much. 

Led by environmental activists, villagers have been sporadically protesting against the plant for the past 20 years. But their cause has gained wide public resonance in recent months. Several political parties including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the new entrants led by Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have rallied against the plant. 

Interestingly, Dravidian parties that had earlier stayed away from the protests have now changed their position on the issue. Sterlite came to Tamil Nadu during the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) regime and started operations in 1996 when the DMK government was in power. Environmental clearance for expansion was given by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre in 2009 that had DMK as part of its fold. 

Villagers, however, are not losing sight of their goal. “We are not lead by any political party and we are not assembled by any particular group,” says K Sundaramurthy, a resident of Kumarettiyapuram.

The stakes are indeed high for everyone involved: the protesters, Vedanta and the state. The group’s smelting facility Sterlite Copper has a 400,000-metric-tonnes-per annum (MTPA) production capacity, and contributes nearly 3.3 per cent to Tamil Nadu’s GDP and 44 per cent to the country’s copper production.

The plant, though, has run into controversy right from the start. Before Sterlite set up its facility in Tamil Nadu, it had been allotted 500 acres of land by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation to set up a 60,000 tonne per annum copper smelter and associated facilities in the coastal district of Ratnagiri in 1992. The project, however, failed to take off in the face of a local agitation. 

In 1994, Tamil Nadu allowed the plant , but stipulated that the facility should be located 25 km from the Gulf of Mannar, an ecologically sensitive bioreserve. The licence to operate was issued in 1996 by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. The plant has been besieged by protests ever since. Several times, the facility was closed for months, the longest being in 2013, when it was shut for nearly three months, causing a revenue loss of Rs 40 billion. The plant was reopened only after positive orders from the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court, and an assurance of remedial measures to ensure effluents don’t seep into the ground by the company.

“We have complied with all 30 guidelines laid out by the Supreme Court and this has been confirmed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the Central Pollution Control Board,” says Sterlite Copper CEO P Ramnath.

The villagers, however, remain convinced that pollution from the plant has contributed to their poor health. The recent protests gathered pace after Sterlite announced plans to invest Rs 25 billion on doubling capacity of its existing facility. Protesters allege Sterlite has misled the Union environment ministry and the Madras High Court about the location of the proposed project, and state officials have backed the misrepresentation. 

At the heart of the issue is the allegation that Sterlite is building its project outside the existing industrial complex on a piece of land that is yet to be developed as an industrial estate. 

This is not the first time that a Vednata Group company has hit a hurdle in India. Earlier, its aluminium project in Odisha was at the centre of a long-drawn agitation as locals refused to allow mining around the hills they considered scared. In the absence of enough raw material, the plant is currently operating at only half its capacity.

With the protests showing no signs of relenting, the state government has stepped in. “Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami has sought a detailed report on the Sterlite row from the Tuticorin district administration. The report will soon be sent to him and we expect a good decision to be taken by the chief minister,” minister for information and publicity Kadambur C Raju told reporters recently.

While denying all the allegations, Ramnath says Sterlite has received all the necessary regulatory clearances for the expansion. The new plant, he says, will come equipped with systems to ensure zero discharge and utilisation of waste for sustainable applications.

In his view the protests are motivated and driven by misinformation. “The company’s employees quarters are located right opposite the plant. All of us are staying and working in the plant for many years, but we have not had any issues,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sterlite’s 2018-19 licence to operate (it needs to be renewed every year), has been rejected by the State Pollution Control Board for want of more clarifications. This is likely to delay the opening of the plant, which is currently shut for routine annual maintenance.

In the interim, Sterlite is trying to look differently at its problems. “Once the protests subside, we will talk to villagers to understand what their grievances are,” says Ramnath.  

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