While ecologists are wary about development, public opinion appears split

It’s ecology vs economy in Thoothukudi

Eight months after Thoothukudi erupted in protest against Sterlite’s Copper smelter resulting in the death of 13 people in police firing, the ‘Pearl City’ of Southern India is torn between those opposing and supporting the Vedanta-owned company.

Public opinion now seems split over the plant’s closure – largely because of the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) order in December 2018 that cleared the way for the reopening of the copper smelter plant. In May 2018, the Tamil Nadu government passed a Government Order (GO) to shut down the plant permanently following violent protests over the health and environment issues linked to the Sterlite plant. The agitation culminated in the police killing 13 protesters. 

The closure has had an impact on the economy and livelihoods of the town, which is still in distress. In the last eight months, more than 1.5 lakh people have sought reopening of the plant. While several thousand people have lost jobs due to the plant’s closure, the worst hit are the contractual employees and those who were indirectly dependent on Sterlite Copper, which absorbed only its permanent employees.

After the NGT order, the Vedanta Group has applied for a fresh Consent to Operate (CTO) from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to re-open the massive plant and plans to request the district administration and Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) to provide access to the plant and to restore power to the plant, respectively.

“Implementation of the projects announced for the community will happen simultaneously as committed to the NGT. Sterlite Copper will have continuous and sustained engagement with the local population and the stakeholders to enhance lives in Thoothukudi,” Sterlite Copper chief executive officer P Ramnath told DH.

But the anti-Sterlite movement spearheaded by retired professor Fathima Babu, who was the first to take the company to the court, is firm that it will not move even an inch from its demand to permanently close the plant that has “claimed lives of 13 innocent people.” They are also contemplating protests in case the plant is opened.

“It is very sad that we are talking only about economic loss, but not the human loss and environmental degradation. Sterlite Copper maintaining that it is a stickler for rules is a joke on the people of Thoothukudi as we have exposed them not once, but several times. It is unfortunate that people are not talking about environmental issues,” Fathima Babu told DH.

On the other side, families of the victims, including the 17-year-old girl Snowlin, are anxiously waiting in the hope that justice is done to their loved ones. “My brother Gladston who was into fishing was one of the victims of police firing. He went just to participate in the protest but was shot dead. But even as we await justice for my brother, there are plans afoot to reopen the plant. How fair is it? Why did the police kill innocent civilians and why no case has been filed against the policemen who shot 13 people?” Stephen asked.

Pal Janaki, mother of Maniraj who was killed in the police firing within two months of his marriage, burst into tears when she narrated about their life after her son’s tragic death.

“I have not been able to console my daughter-in-law who is yet to come to terms with the tragedy. All we want is justice for the killing of my innocent son,” she said.

NGT had on December 15 termed as “non-sustainable” and “unjustified” the Tamil Nadu government’s order to close the smelter unit and directed restoration of electricity supply to the factory for resuming operations. It also asked Sterlite Copper to spend within three years Rs 100 crore on the welfare of inhabitants of the area and take steps for safeguarding the environment, including creating a dedicated website where the stakeholders can lodge environment-related grievances.

The Tamil Nadu government basing its GO solely on the TNPCB report without following proper procedures — the company was not even served a show-cause notice before the closure — was criticised by the NGT which based its observations on the report by Justice Tarun Agarwal Committee, which was formed to look into the issue.

Opinion in villages that are located close to the Sterlite plant is also split—– while a majority of the people in South Veerapandiapuram are openly batting for the industry, the anti-Sterlite sentiment is still high in A Kumarettiyapuram. This apart, some parts of Thoothukudi and the villages close to the plant still live under constant fear with police continuing to arrest youth for their alleged role in the May protests.

On the economy side, the Customs Department might have lost Rs 1,300 crore, the amount Sterlite Copper paid as import duty in the 2017-2018 financial year, besides the revenue loss incurred by the V O Chidambaranar (VOC) Port Trust.

“Since the plant has been closed, we have not been getting any revenue from Sterlite Copper. In the last fiscal, they paid around Rs 1,300 crore and this time the revenue from them is nil as they have stopped imports. Sterlite Copper is a large importer in Thoothukudi,” K V V G Diwakar, 
Commissioner of Customs, Thoothukudi, told DH.

The VOC Port, has lost approximately Rs 30 crore, besides job losses as no ship carrying raw materials for Sterlite Copper docked at the port since April. In 2017-2018 fiscal, 175 ships carrying raw materials for the Sterlite plant docked at the port. The government has lost around Rs 2,000 crore — the amount that Sterlite Copper maintains will be paid as tax and fees to the government.

Financial crisis

Several lorry and tipper owners, who had invested in buying more vehicles in the hope that the Sterlite’s expansion plans would get them more trips, are in dire financial crisis. However, the anti-Sterlite protesters refuse to buy the argument that the closing down of the plant has crippled the town’s economy.

“We were not begging before Sterlite Copper made its foray into Thoothukudi. The town was flourishing even when Sterlite Copper made its foray into Thoothukudi 20 years back. Why is that everyone falling for the narrative that the economy of the city is crippling? It is not so,” Fathima Babu said.

Balakrishnan, who runs Umarisakthi Transport that was attached to Sterlite Copper plant, says many owners have either surrendered their vehicles as they could not pay the monthly instalments or have been incurring financial losses.

Raw materials for Sterlite Copper like copper concentrate, coal, rock phosphate, gypsum and slag are imported through ships.“When Sterlite Copper was functioning, the heavy vehicles — lorries and tippers — would be operational for 25 to 28 days a month. After the closure of the plant, we don’t have any work,” he said.

Peer Uvaisul Karnaine, director of Seaport Logistics and vice-president of Tuticorin Stevedores Association, also echoed the views. He told DH that occupation of machinery like giant cranes that are used to unload materials from ships have been very minimal in the last eight months.

“We made huge investments since Sterlite Copper was functioning in Thoothukudi. We can survive only if the plant opens. The berths at the Thoothukudi port are vacant. It is an industry-dependent city and we need industries,” he said.

But those who are opposing the plant demand TNPCB, the state’s statutory body which is mandated with issuing licences to industries, to reject Sterlite Copper’s CTO application. They want TNPCB to look into the 21 violations pointed out by them like not increasing the height of the smokestack in parallel with the production capabilities and not adhering to the size of the green belt area agreed upon.

“The NGT order does not hold water and it is rather inconsequential. The reasons that we have been citing since April 10, 2018, when the CTO for Sterlite was renewed, against Sterlite Copper still hold up and we want the TNPCB to reject the fresh application submitted by the company. The violations that we have cited are strong enough to deny CTO,” well known environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman said.

From the location to the size of the smokestack and the green belt, Sterlite in collusion with the TNPCB has violated every established guideline, thereby polluting the air and water around the plant, Nityanand added.

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