The report that the Sterlite copper smelter in Tuticorin was closed down after a sulphur dioxide leak and the accompanying picture of celebrations with crackers (March 31) made sad reading. Crackers are made of sulphur and carbon. When they are burst, a cloud of sulphur dioxide emanates, which can be seen in the picture.
According to media reports, the effects of gas leak from the plant were uneasiness, suffocation and eye irritation. Most parts of any town have these conditions even without a “noxious industry” around. Our sewage and open canals generate many types of gases. Industries are set up after a proper study. Preventive measures are duly incorporated. Despite these, there can be some minor emissions. But can a factory be closed? It can be fined and made to correct its mistakes.
The plant closure is a major victory for MDMK-backed activists who campaigned for it for two decades. The resistance group comprising fishermen, farmers and students was small but it took on the copper smelting giant even as the company denied causing pollution.
It is true that development involves industrialisation. But it is absurd to argue that it can be achieved only by destroying the environment. The struggle at Tuticorin represents the efforts of the locals to wage a relentless battle against a company at both the judicial and grass-roots levels.
As one who worked for over 10 years in factories that produced sulphur dioxide, sulphur trioxide and acid, I can say with certainty that the gas leak must have been the result of haphazard in-plant inspections. When I worked in Mitsubishi gas chemicals near Tokyo, I found that engineers and chemists headed by the general manager inspected the factory twice a day. In India, we have a casual attitude to everything. A Japanese type of Gemba-cho system should be evolved in factories as a preventive measure.