CHENNAI: One year has passed since the ghastly police firing in Thoothukudi, which killed 14 people protesting against Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi. Since then the company has been taking massive initiatives for an image makeover. It has doled out social schemes to the tune of whopping Rs 100 crore and launched massive public outreach programmes in the last two months.
The company is hoping to move the court to reopen the plant as soon as the High Court returns after vacation on June 3. However, families of the deceased are still in trauma. They believe the company’s social reform programmes are nothing but ‘gimmicks’ and accuse the State government of working hand-in-glove to help reopen the factory.
Sterlite Copper’s promises are massive. Its newly appointed CEO Pankaj Kumar recently launched a smart school project, called Tamira Vidhyalaya, for children of marginalised communities living in 14 villages around the plant. The company will provide financial support for 1,300 students as part of this plan.
Kumar says their CSR initiative, titled ‘Muthucharam’, will address six major demands put forward by the communities — a smart school, a world-class multi-speciality hospital, water supply for the villages, youth and women resource centres and planting of 1 million trees in the surroundings.
We have been focussing on garnering public support for the last two months, says a Sterlite spokesperson. “We feel the closure of the plant was not based on merits, but other considerations.” The kin of those killed in the violence, however, feel no option, other than complete closure of the plant, is acceptable. “If the government is serious about closing down the factory permanently as it claims, why is the local administration allowing the company to carry out social welfare projects,” asks K Stephen, a resident of Lourdhammalpuram. Stephen’s brother K Glaston was one of the 14 people shot dead by the police.
“Building schools and hospitals, supplying water and power are things that the government should be doing. The officials could have used the `100 crore compensation paid by the company in 2013 for these developmental works. The money is pending with the district administration,” says Stephen.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to Express, a senior government official claimed they would ensure permanent closure of the factory. “They may have been given a long rope in the past, but this time the government has prepared a watertight case. It will ensure permanent closure of the plant.”
A ticking bomb?
Serious questions are being raised about the safety of the plant and people living around the facility. “The condition of the plant has deteriorated due to lack of care and maintenance... It can be catastrophic for the local population,” says the Sterlite spokesperson.
“We used to spend Rs 60 crore annually on maintenance apart from another Rs 150 crore during quadrennial turnaround shutdown for safety and environmental reasons.”
“Now the condition has deteriorated to such levels that the cost of restoring the plant would be an additional Rs 100 crore.” The company further blamed the government for “compromising” the safety of the local population and environment. It has warned about various threats, such as safety risks on account of “remnant acids stored in the plant, which are likely to cause loss of lives/property” and “potential risk of fire in and around the plant’s vicinity”.
In its affidavit, Sterlite had claimed that seven fire accidents had happened in the plant. The government has dismissed these allegations. “The unit has been under lock and seal for the last one year. There has been no untoward incident, except for an acid leak in June 2018 from the sulphuric acid storage tank. The leak was taken care of and all acid has been removed from the storage tank,” said a senior TNPCB official.
The government affidavit says, currently, the Local Level Monitoring Committee headed by sub-collector of Thoothukudi, is seized of the matter. The committee has been allowed to undertake the certain works on priority, including removal of copper concentrate, neutralization of residual acids, removal of furnace oil and light diesel oil, removal of rock phosphate, removal of copper sulphate electrolyte and care and maintenance of equipment, etc.
“Out of this, the Committee has already ensured that a large chunk of hazardous wastes has been removed. On care and maintenance of equipment, the petitioner is at liberty to make a valid representation to the Committee itself, who may undertake a technical feasibility test at the cost of the petitioner,” the counter reads.