Vedanta Group’s Sterlite Copper facility at Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi, also known as Tuticorin, has been in the eye of a storm in the 48 years since a police firing claimed 12 lives. Those killed were among the thousands of protesters demanding the closure of a Sterlite Copper facility alleging it was hazardous to employees’ health. For nearly 20 years, Sterlite has been facing the issue, but this is the first time that it has gone to such extremes. P Ramnath, chief executive of Sterlite Copper, tells T E Narasimhan & Gireesh Babu in an interview that the company is being victimised. Edited excerpts:
We are concerned about what has happened in the past two days. We appeal to the government to ensure the safety of our employees, facilities and the surrounding community. We have received the Court order just now and have not been given time to respond to it. We will go through it and decide on what to do next.
The plant has been facing protests. What are the actions Sterlite is taking to address the concerns?
We have been engaging with the local community. Around 70 per cent of the employees are from Tamil Nadu. Of them 70 per cent are locals. Besides, we have also done lots of corporate-social responsibility (CSR) activities, especially related to water, which is a major problem here, health facilities, education and others. We need to step up local connect activities.
But, people are still worried. They think that the plant is hazardous and is not following norms…
There are various myths being propagated by various vested interests – Sterlite causing cancer, for example. But these are wrong. Some king of fear psychosis is being instilled into the minds of people.
We are living just half a kilometre from the plant, and we are all a living proof; several children have grown up there.
They are alleging that the effluent is taken out to the sea. Where do we have a pipeline? The plant has zero liquid discharge.
We have asked people and protestors to visit our plant and said we would provide all the data and explain everything. But they have not visited.
The state government and pollution control board are alleging that Sterlite has not followed the norms…
The consent to operate for the existing plant has been refused on the basis of five conditions that were listed out.
These include that the groundwater sampling be provided. That is something for the pollution control board to do. They need to come and take the samples and get them tested in laboratories. Then, there is something on ambient air quality monitoring. An arsenic test has to be carried out through some NABL-accredited laboratory. This condition is not part of the consent to operate. They have not asked us till now; if they want it, we will be able to provide it.
Then there is the issue of hazardous waste authorisation not being submitted. It has been done for four or five years and we have been submitting the application; the pollution control board has not give us any information on this. We expect that in case there is a rejection, we should be told so, along with the reasons, so that we can take remedial actions. I don’t see any issue at all in complying with all these conditions.
When the matter comes up at the appellate board on June 6, we are confident that we will get a favourable order.
Are you saying you are completely environment-friendly?
So many committees visited Sterlite over the years and found things to be okay. This is a journey; things may not be 100 per cent okay.
They have given the recommendations. For example, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute gave 30 recommendations and the National Green Tribunal suggested 15-20 things. All of those have been fulfilled.
We have ourselves established various monitoring systems, such as fence-line monitoring to record emissions. Several things are monitored by the pollution control board and everything is recorded. People should not get carried away by the kind of canards that are being spread around.
On the whole, we have invested Rs 5 billion for environment alone.
There are allegations that Phase-II expansion of the plant doesn’t have clearances…
We have taken land from the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) and we have got environment clearances. We need to take up the matter in court.
You don’t have the support of the ruling party, Opposition or local people. Is Sterlite’s future here in question? Any plans to look at other states?
Going legally is the only solution. We don’t have any plans to expand outside Tamil Nadu.
What kind of loss have you incurred due to the closure?
Every four years, we shut down for 45 days as part of a maintenance exercise; this (the present situation) will see an extended shutdown.