Closure orders from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board not new for company

Tuticorin-based Sterlite Copper, which took its roots in the black cotton soil on the sprawling SIPCOT premises exactly two decades ago, has been once again placed in a situation not unfamiliar to it after it received closure orders from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board on Saturday.

The recent emission of sulphur dioxide that spread across several parts of Tuticorin a few days ago from an “unknown source” has become the reason for the latest irritation to the copper major. The closure notice from the official machinery shows that the revenue and the TNPCB officials, who inspected the plant premises in SIPCOT complex to ascertain the public’s charge that the Sterlite Copper was the source that caused the spreading of the poisonous gas are apparently convinced. Against this backdrop, the TNPCB has ordered its closure, and power connection to the Rs. 4,000-crore plant that manufactures copper anode has been subsequently snapped.

Ever since the then AIADMK government, led by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, gave its consent for establishing the copper anode manufacturing unit in 1993, this vital arm of Vedanta Group of Companies is facing stiff resistance from the public. The fishermen, backed by Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Vaiko, started waging sustained struggle against this proposal as they feared that the effluents to be discharged by the plant would irreparably pollute the sea and their livelihood would be wiped out.

To neutralize this agitation at least to some extent, special recruitment drives were then conducted to recruit suitable candidates from the fishermen community. But the attempt went in vain as the agitation was kept alive. Though the local Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam office-bearers showcased themselves as champions of anti-Sterlite movement, their stance was short-lived as production started in this unit in 1997 when the DMK was in power in Tamil Nadu.

Though the plant started its production with the capacity of 1.50 lakh tonnes per annum, it was subsequently increased to 4 lakh tonnes in 2003, thanks to the huge demand prevailing in the market. And its bi-products – sulphuric acid, phosphoric acid, gypsum and iron silicate – too enjoyed good market in south India, which made the venture successful for the Vedanta Group, which also spent a huge sum in its Corporate Social Responsibility programme such as special evening schools at a few places, financial assistance to the self-help groups, entrepreneurship training, health camps, scholarships to outstanding students from poor families, and so on.

“We’ve spent so far over Rs. 25 crore ever since our CSR activities started,” says a senior official of Sterlite Copper.

However, the unit entered the turbulent phase when the MDMK and the Left parties started their agitation against the plant.

The legal battle, waged by Mr. Vaiko in the Madras High Court, resulted in the closure of the unit on September 28, 2010. But the order was stayed by a Supreme Court order on October 18, 2010, which was subsequently extended by the apex court on November 6, 2011 to keep the factory humming.

In the wake of acute power crunch, 2 X 80 MW coal-based captive power plants are being created and the first unit started generating electricity two months ago. “The second one will start generation very shortly,” a senior official of Sterlite Copper said.

However, the Vedanta Group’s efforts to expand the project also suffered a setback owing to litigation in the Madras High Court that stayed the move.

Apart from the “industrial accidents” on the Sterlite premises that consumed a few lives to trigger slogans and protests against the copper manufacturing unit, the spreading of “poisonous gas from this plant” also has strengthened the protesters’ voice in the past. After two labourers from a nearby plant were struck by noxious gas, Sterlite was closed for a few days in July 1997. Again, a similar problem has now surfaced to compel the official machinery to act against the copper major and expectedly, the company is quite hopeful of crossing this hurdle also through the options available before it, including legal remedy.

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