The continuing agitation and the death of 13 people in police firing in the last two days in Thoothukudi have raised questions over the fate of Sterlite Copper’s smelter plant. In an interview, P. Ramnath, chief executive officer, Sterlite Copper, accused external forces of inciting local people and said there were enough indications early on that the May 22 protest would not be peaceful. He also said exiting the State was not on cards, and the company would pursue the legal route.
The protests were peaceful during the first 100 days. What changed on May 22?
In run up to the May 22 agitation , sufficient warnings were given through social media, posters and pamphlets that it was not going to be a peaceful protest. There were so many social media messages which were inflammatory. There have been posters all over the place showing the plant burning. They made it clear that May 22 was going to be the last day for Sterlite Copper. From the media, we got to know that the police and the Sub-Collector called the protesters for a peace meeting and that they were allotted a ground for holding the protest peacefully. One faction agreed, and the other, did not. Therefore, the violent protest happened, and what followed is very, very unfortunate.
The shootings probably could have been avoided. That is something that the police and the administration have to take care off. We condemn the act of violence on our own premises with our own people coming under attack. In our own township, people have burnt vehicles. Nearly 15-20 vehicles have been burnt. The diesel generator set was completely damaged. And thankfully they have not entered the houses and tried to assault the people. That is something which we are thankful about. We are also thankful that till date there is no attack on the plant and the other premises. So, hopefully things will calm down in the next few days. So, we are hoping for the best.
So who are these protesters and why are they calling for the plant’s shutdown?
Our plant has been shut down for maintenance. In the last five to six years, there has been absolutely no incident. Suddenly, these issues are cropping up from nowhere. So, that’s why we feel that some kind of an instigation has happened. Normally, the public won’t react to this extent. So we really feel there is some external catalyst, which is adding fuel and ensuring that the fire keeps burning. These are elements that have come in and they are making use of the situation to further their own agenda. It can be NGOs getting foreign funding for destabilising local industries is a common knowledge.
Very recently several NGOs have been de-listed and all their contributions have been de-listed. There are several NGOs which are in operation who are getting funds from abroad and possibly some of the funds are being directed to these kinds of activities. Somebody should get into the details because this is a very serious matter. The company has invested so much – over ₹500 crore – on environmental safeguards and we abide by all standards. The Pollution Control Board also regularly takes samples and records all data.
Your views on the Madras High Court order asking you to stop expansion and also the controversy over public hearings not held before expansion?
The Court order was based on the urgent motion moved by R. Fathima. And we were not even given an opportunity to give an rejoinder or give our side of it. And when we tried to give our part of the story it was not accepted. That is something which we will have to take up for the phase 2 expansion. From our side, we have been allotted the land by SIPCOT and this land was acquired in 2005, I think. So that’s where we are saying that because of the Environmental Impact Assessment notification that any land acquired prior to 2006 need not go through the public hearing process. That is how we started and that is how we put it forward to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and got the environmental clearance. So, now of course they are giving a different spin to it. That is something we need to take it up with the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court. They have cut off the power today. Right now the plant is under maintenance and shut down. So as of now, that does not really make that kind of an impact. We have to take up the issue as on June 6 we have got the case coming up in the Appellate Tribunal. We have to see how it goes from there.
What do you think is the immediate solution?
The solution is legal at this point of time.
If things don’tchange, will you consider looking at an alternative destination for investments?
We have not even thought about it. Twenty years ago, we came down to Thoothukudi and set up the plant for a reason. That reason continues. For the second plant also we had an option of moving to other States, but we decided to be here. That decision continues and that does not change as of now.
Do you think issues like this will hamper the investment climate in the state?
In 2015, we had a Global Investment Meet and MoUs worth several crores were signed. We did not sign an MoU but we were ready to open a second plant. The State had very good intentions to develop the Madurai-Thoothukudi corridor. They rolled out some special incentives too for the southern districts, land at low prices, tax waivers etc. With this kind of climate already industries are moving to Sricity and that will be a tragedy for Tamil Nadu. All the momentum built will be lost.
How do you plan to counter the negative image of the company/brand after this incident?
Over the years, we have followed the practice of inviting sections of the society to visit our plant every Saturday and answering their queries. Even during the recent protests, we invited environmentalists and villagers to visit the plant but they did not turn up. They should come and discuss with us and tell us what is wrong. We can take some steps to rectify it. But, sitting back and saying everything is wrong does not help. We want to allay the fears of people and are open to meeting and discussing with them.