The aftershocks of Sterlite

In the myopic focus on the case’s environmental impact, its socioeconomic ramifications have been neglected

September 09, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 01:28 pm IST

A view of the Sterlite Copper Plant in Thoothukudi. File

A view of the Sterlite Copper Plant in Thoothukudi. File

The Madras High Court has refused to allow the reopening of the Sterlite copper plant at Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu. As expected, the company has moved the Supreme Court against the order. The plant was closed in 2018 after 13 people were killed by the police. The police fired on protesters demonstrating outside the factory premises against environmental pollution.

The merits and demerits of the Sterlite case have been extensively discussed in courts, and the issue will be further dissected when the Supreme Court takes it up again. Ultimately, the apex court will have the final say in the matter.

Also read: Madras High Court rejects Vedanta’s plea to reopen Sterlite copper plant

The whole discussion, thus far, has been on the alleged environmental impact of the project in and around the region. In a blinkered horse-like focus, other key issues have been deliberately given a go-by.

Finding refuge in Tamil Nadu

The Sterlite copper unit has been in the eye of the storm right from day one. Even a casual dip into the past will reveal a clue or two about it. The project was driven out by Maharashtra and Goa for various reasons. Surprisingly, it found refuge in Tamil Nadu. Ipso facto, the initial culpability should rest with the State government of the day that allowed the project to come into the State in the first instance. The State has been under the dispensation of either of the two Dravidian parties – the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – all through the development of the Sterlite plant.

Also read: Decision to shut Sterlite unit hasty, Vedanta tells HC

There were intermittent protests against the project all these years, no doubt. But the project went from strength to strength. With close to 4,000 direct and 20,000 indirect jobs, the project helped the region around the port to prosper. It also helped India become a copper-exporting nation.

Today, India has been forced to become a net importer of copper after nearly 18 years. With the closure of the plant, the world has turned topsy-turvy for the people in the region. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the misery.

With the benefit of hindsight, one could safely surmise that political parties and leaders cutting across the canvas have shown little sagacity and statesmanship while handling the Sterlite imbroglio, right from the day the project was let into Tamil Nadu.

Two States had shunned the project. Yet, Tamil Nadu preferred to be benign and rolled out the red carpet for Sterlite. Not just that, State leaderships of all hues let it continue all these years, notwithstanding the intermittent anti-Sterlite sentiments. All of a sudden, the problem assumed a magnified proportion when the company proposed an expansion. It took an ugly turn when police fired on protesters. The rest is history, as they say.

Often, we act in haste and regret at leisure. In this instance, the government ordered immediate closure of the plant after the police firing outside the plant premises. It was like Abhimanyu’s entry into the Chakravyuh in the Mahabharat. He perished in the battlefield since he did not know how to exit. Had the authorities exhausted all other options before ordering closure of the plant? This will be debated endlessly.

Sterlite has now become a reference point – unfortunately for all the wrong reasons – for any prospective manufacturers to set up plants in Tamil Nadu. Sterlite was the alibi when a rifle project was moved to Amethi by Russia.

Playing to the gallery

The saga reflects the propensity of Tamil Nadu’s ruling class, largely the Dravidian parties, to play to the gallery. As a class, the political leadership of various parties must shun this game, which often ends up hurting the progress of the State. This is where we sorely miss the healthy interface between the government and the Opposition. If political parties have come out poorly, government agencies such as the Pollution Control Board haven’t distinguished themselves well either, on issues of larger cause. Either they have not been professional, or they have allowed themselves to be subservient to political masters.

In a socioeconomic context, a trade-off is an inevitable necessity in the debate between development and environment. With a population of over 130 crore, the issue of development cannot be wished away. This calls for a responsible political leadership. It also needs professionalism from assorted government agencies.

In the Sterlite case, a solution was sought in ordering the closure. Unfortunately, no thought was given to the complete evaporation of livelihoods in the entire region due to this move. The fault certainly lies with the political leadership as a whole. The scars of the damage will persist for a long while.

K.T. Jagannathan is a financial journalist

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