Do you hear the SOS from a coastal town in TN?

The penultimate message arrived in mid-February, not via Morse code, but a newspaper advertisement published by trade bodies and community groups. In summary, it said: “Save our Future, Give back our Livelihoods.”

SOS image
Representational image.

By R. Chandra Mouli

In the maritime world, the distress signal SOS – defined by three dots, three dashes, three dots – has been in use since 1905. Sent under the rarest of circumstances, the plea ‘Save our Souls’ indicates clear and present danger.

A similar situation prevails in a coastal town in Tamil Nadu, Thoothukudi to be precise. The penultimate message arrived in mid-February, not via Morse code, but a newspaper advertisement published by trade bodies and community groups. In summary, it said: “Save our Future, Give back our Livelihoods.”

To explain why a nationwide appeal was made in print, one must explain where it all began.

A company named Sterlite Copper commenced production nearly 25 years ago at SIPCOT Industrial Complex, Thoothukudi. The entity is part of Vedanta Resources, a global mining and metals major. While the focus is on manufacture of copper cathode, copper rods, sulphuric acid and phosphoric acid, the process of smelting copper concentrate gives rise to various by-products of value and utility to allied industries.

Because environment pollution can be a concern in a facility where copper concentrate is blended in a molten bath and cooled as ingots, bars and strips, the Plant’s air quality systems were connected to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). This enabled a real-time check of any infringement of pre-agreed emission norms.

In terms of output, the smelter scaled new peaks in its flagship product and by-products. In many ways, credit goes to the plant’s direct and indirect workforce of over 4,000 and its business partners such as downstream industries, ancillary units, logistics providers and stevedores who together created employment opportunities for more than one lakh skilled and semi-skilled professionals in and around the town.

The trouble started when Sterlite Copper applied for permission to expand the smelter’s capacity. Had it received approval, India and Tamil Nadu would have been home to the world’s largest single site copper smelter. The facility was satisfying almost 40% of India’s copper requirement, and had helped reduce dependence on imports, leading to savings in outflow of foreign exchange. In value terms, India earned net foreign exchange of $1.1 billion in copper exports in 2017-18.

However, perceptions were changing on ground. Various allegations surfaced, and word started getting around like an acid drop… aren’t people suffering from cancer in Thoothukudi, is the air fit to breathe, is the ground water being contaminated and why is the local population not agitating against the “persistent polluter.”

In the year 2008, in response to concerns, authorities conducted a study of more than 80,000 villagers living within a 5 km radius of the smelter. The study found various health hazards among the sample. The study however stated illnesses such as respiratory disease could not be attributed solely to one unit as there is a cluster of 67 industries (in a later plea before the Court, Sterlite Copper pointed out the Company cannot be termed as the sole contributor of pollution without conducting a ‘source apportionment’ study).

Before examining more such published data, let’s gain an understanding of categorisation of industries by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

CPCB has developed criteria based on a concept of Pollution Index which is a function of emissions (air pollutants), effluents (water pollutants), hazardous waste generated, and consumption of resources. Industrial Sectors having Pollution Index Score of 60 and above fall into Red Category, 41 to 59 Orange, 21 to 40 Green and a score up to 20 is categorized as White. This was done in 2016 to harmonize classification of industries (copper smelters fall under ‘Red’ category).

While the CPCB is the nodal authority for pollution monitoring in India, at the state level it is the TNPCB. A report published and available online in the CPCB website says the town of Thoothukudi is the only “non-attainment” city in Tamil Nadu with reference to pollution. The report was released 16 months after the closure of Sterlite Copper. The necessary inference is the town continues to be a pollution hotspot due to other “red category” industries in operation.

The flip-flop situation for Sterlite Copper has continued with legal forums and regulatory bodies expressing diametrically opposite opinions and rulings. Here are examples:

* On 16.01.1995, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) grants environmental clearances for the project. ? Thereafter, the Government of Tamil Nadu, the Department of Forest, grants environmental clearance on 17.05.1995. TNPCB grants consent on 22.05.1995 to set up the plant.

* By order dated 14.10.1996, under Section 21 of the Air Act and Section 25 of the Water Act, Sterlite Copper was granted consent to operate the plant with a capacity of 391 tonnes of blister copper per day and 1060 tonnes of sulphuric acid per day till 31.03.1997, subject to terms and conditions.  

* Soon after the grant of consent orders, Writ Petitions are filed before the Madras High Court during November 1996, challenging the grant of environmental clearance and other related approvals.

* Within three months of commencing production, ie. in April 1997, writ petitions are filed challenging the grant of environmental clearance and the clearance granted by the State Government.

* On 17.11.1998, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) files a report which is not in favour of Sterlite Copper. On 23.11.1998, the Division Bench orders closure of the plant. On 09.02.1999, NEERI reverses its opinion, and the Division Bench permits reopening by order dated 23.02.1999.

* The writ petitions, inspections, public interest litigation and interim injunctions continue until 2018. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) adds a new twist in 2018 by proclaiming the closure order of Tamil Nadu Government as “unjustifiable.”

* No significant change in the concentration levels of SO2 is observed at the Ambient Air Quality Stations of Thoothukudi before 1-year and after 1-year of the closure of the Sterlite Copper plant operations, says a report titled “Ambient Air Quality and Air Quality Index Trend in Thoothukudi and Comparison with Major Cities of India" published in November 2021.

As for members of the community, the see-saw situation and contrarian reports were of no solace. Seven months before the NGT order, mass protests erupted over 100 days in mid-2018, which led to the most unfortunate incident in May 2018 when 13 precious lives were lost after the police had to open fire to quell a mob that was surging towards the Collector’s office.

In the time after the plant was sealed, there was a dip in domestic production of copper. India incurred a net foreign exchange outflow of $1.2 billion in 2018-19. Copper imports went up from $2.2 billion in FY21 to $2.9 billion in FY22.

In the four years after closure, ancillary industries that had relied on Sterlite Copper for supply of copper or by-products have either shut down or relocated to other states. This includes a major chemicals manufacturer who had to close the plant and restart operations in Orissa.

Another aspect before we summarise: “Green Mobility” has become a buzzword globally. Tamil Nadu, which has taken a firm lead among Indian states, is well on its way to become the ‘EV Capital of India.’ Electric vehicles require a substantial amount of copper – for batteries, windings and copper rotors used in electric motors, and for wiring, busbars and charging infrastructure.

The average EV requires over 80 kg of copper, while solar photovoltaic and onshore wind platforms require nearly 3,000 kg of copper to deliver just one MW of power. Offshore wind power generation requires as much as 8,000 kg of copper per MW. The irony is to produce green energy, energize electric vehicles and achieve carbon neutrality, we need tons of copper.

Meanwhile, the plant that can make a difference has turned into a case study that reflects the constant tussle between industrial development and environment.

Relevant to recall here a ruling by a bench of the Supreme Court in February 2023 – while dealing with the Calcutta High Court’s order allowing the cutting down of 356 trees (a necessary step for building of Railway Over Bridges – the absence of which was causing congestion at railway crossings and had led to loss of over 600 lives over the years). The Bench took note of the Expert Committee’s observation that ROBs are essential to resolve congestion. The learned judges observed that:

“The contest between development and environmental concerns is ever ongoing. While there is no doubt that ecology and environment need to be protected for the future generations, at the same time, development projects cannot be stalled, which are necessary for the economic development of the country, but at times for the safety of citizens as well.”

More than four years after closure of the smelter, the situation is “as is where is.’ The plant remains under lock and key (except for a brief period during the pandemic when it was allowed to open to produce oxygen to save lives). Meanwhile, the socio-economic situation has changed, with the most adversely affected being members of the community who were associated with the plant as contractors, suppliers and providers of support services.

The decision on whether to reopen Sterlite Copper, or maintain status quo, is sub judice, and is likely to be taken by the apex Court in the coming months.

Meanwhile, what can be done on the ground? Here are my suggestions:

* We are part of the world’s largest democracy. It is time to initiate a frank and open dialogue with members of the public, regulatory authorities, and the leadership in the State as well as the Centre.

* Crucial to the dialogue is participation from environmental activists and representatives of political parties whose views and insights are integral to discussions.

* As for the Sterlite Copper management, they will do well to recall the Tamil proverb “there is no smoke without fire.” They must go back to the drawing board, review the plant’s technology, architecture, and safety norms, introduce greater checks and balances, and reiterate their commitment by ushering in state-of-the-art upgrades.

Distress signals don’t always end in distress. The saviour can appear in any form, or in multiple avatars:

– In the form of an open-minded approach from the current Government in Tamil Nadu, which is rated as industry friendly, means business and means well for business.

– The first step the State Government could take is to utilise the penalty amount of Rs. 100 crores deposited by Sterlite Copper in 2018 (of which only Rs. 7 crores have been spent as per an RTI query). The funds can be deployed for rebuilding lives, boosting morale and assuring a new beginning is being made.

– Relief can be in the form of a change of mindset from members of the public who had earlier opposed the reopening and are now inclined in favour.

– By setting up of a Citizens’ Committee with fair and all-round representation to monitor re-start of the plant and its operations for the first year (in the event of a positive outcome from the judiciary).

– Initiating speedy review and clearances from regulatory and administrative authorities.

Speaking of clearances, the TNPCB can take a re-look at the entire industrial belt in Thootukudi. Action should be taken against offenders across the board, without prejudice to their status as a public or private sector enterprise.

According to a study conducted by Health Energy Initiative, none of the 11 public sector thermal power plants operating in Tamil Nadu comply with emission norms prescribed by TNPCB. It was found most of the power plants had not installed monitors for tracking sulphur dioxide emission.

As for Thoothukudi, the perpetrator(s) of air pollution (a reason why the town was was accorded “non-attainment” classification by CPCB) can be a thermal power station, industry operator, construction site, trucks kicking up particulate matter from the tar road edge to the atmosphere, or someone burning waste without a care. As on March 8, 2023, PM2.5 concentration (particulate matter in the atmosphere) in Thoothukudi is currently 4.6 times the annual air quality guideline value prescribed by the World Health Organisation, according to a report published on the website of IQ Air.

To avoid a repeat of hardships and tragedy, it may be useful to remember even in cases where pollution is proved, the same is remediable, and closure should not be the first option. As for activists, environmentalists, civic administrators and plant management, they may focus on a collective goal – restoration of livelihoods. Divergent views and endless filings have not put food or money in the hands of over one lac people, the primary sufferers in the quest for truth.

Life was not always so in Thoothukudi. The tide that ebbs and flows has been a silent witness to pearl fishing, salt production and shipping activities for centuries. The port is named in honour of Thiru V.O. Chidambaranar, who operated a swadeshi shipping company during British rule. In keeping with etymology of train names, the overnighter from Chennai is called “Pearl City Express.”

The recap of a chequered journey leaves us with a question of answers: Will the SOS be heard in corridors and courtrooms, will sustainable development make a comeback, will vested interests stop viewing a national asset as a local liability, will a wave of positivity transform Pearl City? Only time and tide can tell.

(The writer is a strategy consultant, columnist, and former journalist. Views expressed are his own and not necessarily that of

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First published on: 23-03-2023 at 14:25 IST