Thoothukudi: TN's Bhopal?

Vedantic Truth: Sterlite’s legacy of pollution and disease will haunt Thoothukudi for a long time

As the vehicle zipped through the Thoothukudi (Tuticorin)-Madurai national highway, driver Muthuraj slowed down as he approached Sterlite Copper’s massive smelting unit. Suddenly, the man started to choke and hurriedly reached for a bottle of water. As a few gulps of water went in, out came memories of the short stint he had as a third-party labourer at the plant.

“The Sterlite plant is a living hell. Once you return from the factory after having been exposed to the noxious gases, you will never have the appetite to eat. I used to feel hungry but never had the appetite. We used to survive on tea and biscuits. The effect of the pollution that emanates from the plant is deadly. You not only lose appetite, you are also exposed to several diseases,” he said. 

When he realised that in his casual job at a lorry service there was no escape from having to visit the smelter often, Muthuraj chose to quit the job, learnt to drive a car and now works as a chauffeur with a reputed travel firm in the port city.

Sixteen years have passed since Muthuraj last visited Sterlite, but the 36-year-old still remembers the devastating effect the plant has had on his health. “It is the labourers who always suffer. Several people have died in various accidents at the plant, but company officials have faced no action so far,” he rues.

His allegations seem to be true. The government admitted in an RTI reply recently that accidents were indeed reported, but “actions were dropped” without giving any specific reasons.  

Muthuraj is just one among thousands of people who allege that noxious gas leaks and bad effluent management at Sterlite has resulted in people contracting a deluge of diseases, especially those that affect the respiratory system. People living close to the plant allege that the prevalence of cancer in their areas increased after Sterlite began operations in 1996.

Though no study has so far confirmed the claim that air pollution caused by Sterlite is responsible for the observed higher incidence of cancer in the area, environmentalists and those championing the villagers’ cause say that does not absolve the company of the charges. 

However, there are several studies and research papers that have concluded that Sterlite is the major pollutant of Thoothukudi’s air and water, with the latest report of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) confirming that water around the smelter is heavily contaminated.

Asthmatic bronchitis, asthma, pharyngitis, sinusitis, loss of eyesight, skin diseases and menstrual disorders, like hemorrhagic and dysmenorrhagiae, are some of the diseases that are common in and around the area where the factory is located, according to various studies.

Retired academic Fathima Babu, who knocked on the doors of the judiciary against Sterlite’s expansion plans, says any copper smelter would throw up certain hazardous waste and a company that produces 4,00,000 tonnes of copper a year generates such waste in large quantities. 

“Only 20% of the copper ore has metal and the rest are all hazardous waste. The waste even contains heavy metals like sulphur dioxide, iron, lead and chromium. It even contains small amount of uranium. Production of copper is a chemical process that separates the hazardous waste from the copper ore,” she told DH

Since Sterlite did not follow best practices of effluent management, the air and water around the area got polluted, the magnitude of which is difficult to measure, she said.

Echoing her views, environmentalist Nithyanand Jayaraman said, “The pollution is generally due to dumping of solid waste and effluent. Only a portion of the waste is vented through smoke stack (chimney) and the fugitive emissions are difficult to control.” Jayaraman has been associated with the anti-Sterlite cause since 2003.

Sterlite has not followed any of the stipulated guidelines that smelting units should ideally follow, Jayaraman says, pointing to one such violation – between 1996 and 2018, the Vedanta-owned company had increased its production capacity 10-fold without expanding the plant size.

From its location within 14 kilometres of an ecologically-sensitive zone and a green belt to the size of the smoke stack (chimney), Sterlite has, in collusion with the TNPCB, violated every established guideline, thereby polluting the air and water around the plant, Jayaraman said.

“Sterlite Copper’s location is not designated for a hazardous plant that produces 4,00,000 tonnes of copper a year. The area is, at best, suited only for light industries and agriculture. Smelters are usually located in an area from where pollutants cannot travel far,” he added. 

Fathima Babu said it took the people of Thoothukudi and nearby villages a few years to figure out why their loved ones were suddenly being increasingly diagnosed with respiratory diseases and why the water was so polluted that it had become undrinkable. “Every household, at least in my street, has a cancer patient. A majority of the patients who get admitted in the government hospital are diagnosed as having cancer,” she said.

Asked whether she had any proof to link the higher prevalence of cancer with the pollutants emanating from Sterlite, Fathima shot back: “We know for sure that pollution from Sterlite has wrecked our lives. If what we say is wrong, why not Sterlite or the govern-ment prove us wrong by conducting a study.”

Nithyanand said smoke stacks are a key feature designed to mitigate air pollution and the chimney at the Sterlite plant should have measured 123 metres in height as per the law.

“When Sterlite began operations, the prescribed height of the chimney was 70 metres, but TNPCB allowed it to keep it at 60 metres. Since then, production at Sterlite has increased 10-fold, but the height of the stack has remained the same.”

The under-designed stack obstructs the scattering of heavy air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, which is a major cause for increased ground-level concentration of the pollutants in areas close to the plant. In adverse weather conditions, the people of Thoothukudi are prone to suffocation.

Fathima Babu also alleges that Sterlite robbed Thoothukudi of its water by consuming 30 lakh litres every day. “Sterlite contributed majorly to the air and water pollution in and around Thoothukudi. They even robbed the water from us and contaminated it by their bad effluent management.”

Suffocation, miscarriage among pregnant women, skin diseases, loss of eyesight and infertility among men and women are some of the other effects of the pollution due to Sterlite, she added.

On this, Jayaraman quotes a study conducted by the Department of Community Medicine, Tirunelveli Medical College, which found that iron content in the groundwater in villages that erupted against the expansion plans in mid-February were 17-20 times higher than permissible levels prescribed for drinking water by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).

The latest data released by TNPCB has confirmed water pollution in and around the Sterlite plant. In the 15 groundwater samples that TNPCB took from inside the factory and nearby villages, it was found that they contained dangerously high levels of lead.

“High levels of lead are known to harm the çentral nervous system and kidneys, especially in children,” Jayaraman said.

The Tamil Nadu government may have shut down the plant under pressure, but has the action come too late for the people of this port town? Thoothukudi was until recently called the ‘emerging energy and industrial hub of south India’ and ‘pearl city’. But is it in danger of becoming Tamil Nadu’s Bhopal?

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Thoothukudi: TN's Bhopal?

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