Sterlite Industries, which operates the copper smelter in Thoothukudi, was the most generous while donating to Nationalist party BJP.
The BJP received a total of Rs 15 crore from Sterlite Industries, and Rs 7.5 crore from Cairn India – a Vedanta Resources subsidiary – in the FY ending March 31, 2014, the year the Lok Sabha elections were held.
Sterlite Industries paid the Congress Rs 1 crore and Rs 5 crore in 2004-05 and 2009-10 respectively.
As the world watched the ‘March for Our Lives’ demonstrations against gun violence in Washington DC on March 31, there was a similar outpouring of emotion on the streets of Thoothukudi, a port city in south Tamil Nadu. The residents of the district had gathered in large numbers to demand the permanent closure of the copper smelter owned and operated by Vedanta Ltd.
The smelter – Sterlite Copper (formerly Sterlite Industries India Ltd.) – is located within the State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) complex in Melavittan, Tuticorin district, where it has operated since 1997. There are numerous facilities attached to the smelter, including a refinery, a phosphoric acid plant, a sulphuric acid plant, a copper rod plant and three captive power plants. Sterlite Copper is the Indian copper-producing unit of Vedanta, Ltd., a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, the UK-based mining and metals conglomerate.
It was founded by Anil Agarwal, an Indian citizen living in London and its current chairman. Agarwal is worth an estimated $3.3 billion. His meteoric rise can be traced to when he set up the first private copper smelter in India, the erstwhile Sterlite Industries Inc., whose net profit rose by 36x in nine years from 1989.
A source of toxins
There have been widespread protests against the establishment and operation of Sterlite Industries in Thoothukudi by local residents since the mid-1990s. Copper production, including mining, smelting and refining, is a hazardous industry that produces toxic byproducts like lead, arsenic and sulphur oxides that adversely impact water, soil and air quality.
The environmental impact caused by smelters is indisputable and the effects extend to several tens of kilometres around the source. Environmental regulations that aim to reduce emissions require operational changes and make production more expensive and less competitive. According to Vedanta itself, the Sterlite plant in Tuticorin has one of the lowest costs of production of all copper smelting operations around the world.
The Sterlite Copper complex is located within 25 km of four of the 21 islands in the Gulf of Mannar, a diverse and sensitive marine ecosystem. This violates the conditions attached to the ‘Consent to Establish’ issued by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). However, the TNPCB bizarrely consented to the plant in the SIPCOT complex. The board also reduced the width of the mandatory green belt around Sterlite from 250 metres to 25 at Vendanta’s request.
The environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who has been documenting the issue for several years, has written extensively (Ref / Ref) about the role played by state regulatory authorities like TNPCB, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the local district administration in facilitating Sterlite.
At various times, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the TNPCB have found evidence that Sterlite contaminated the groundwater, air and soil with its effluents and also violated standards of operation. A 2005 report by NEERI (submitted to the Supreme Court) found high concentrations of copper, lead, cadmium, arsenic, chlorides and fluorides in a sample of groundwater taken from the plant’s neighbourhood.
In 2010, Mark Chernaik, a scientist with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, authored a report that concluded, “Recent evidence conclusively demonstrates that the Sterlites Industries (India) Limited copper smelting complex in Tuticorin (SIIL) is endangering human health and the environment and contaminating water supplies.” His analysis had found high levels of iron (a toxin in high quantities), cadmium, nickel and arsenic in soil samples collected from near the plant. Chernaik also said that the water from wells and hand pumps in the area were unsuitable for agriculture and that they could damage crops if used for irrigation.
In 2006, researchers from Tirunelveli Medical College conducted an epidemiological study in an area within a five-km radius of Sterlite Industries. According to their report, they found a high prevalence of asthma, pharyngitis, sinusitis and other respiratory tract infections, all proxies for the presence of harmful gases and particulate irritants in the lower atmosphere. They also found an inexplicably high incidence of menstrual disorders, like menorrhagia and dysmenorrhea, in women living in the area.
Thoothukudi is not alone in its suffering. Vedanta Resources (London) and its subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines are currently being sued in English courts by Zambian villagers for polluting their water and destroying their livelihoods through its mining operations.
However, even after multiple toxic gas leaks (accounts here and here), and after people proving that Sterlite blatantly violated environmental safeguards in a court of law, Sterlite has been able to expand operations in its Thoothukudi plant. In the meantime, the TNPCB, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the Madras High court and the Supreme Court have been passing them buck among themselves: one shuts the plant, the other belays the order and opens it.