Tamil Nadu’s coastal town of Thoothukudi is slowly limping back to normalcy after indiscriminate police firing last Tuesday claimed 13 lives.
The police repression of people demanding an end to the pollution of their soil and water has shocked the conscience of the nation. Images of a policeman standing atop a police vehicle and picking off protestors with his gun, will not be easily forgotten.
Unfortunately, it takes a huge human tragedy to get things moving. The Madras High Court has stayed Sterlite’s expansion plans which seek to double copper production to 8 lakh tonnes per annum. And after all the procrastination, the Tamil Nadu government has announced the closure of the copper plant.
Sterlite Industries, its owner London-registered Vedanta Resources Plc, and chairman Anil Aggarwal are shaken up but are willing to bide their time. They are veterans of many environmental protests. Vedanta founder Anil Aggarwal is, after all, a crisis-hardened businessman who has risen from a small-time scrap dealer.
It is not the first protests or deaths that Sterlite had to deal with in Tuticorin. Sterlite set up shop in Tuticorin after its bid to install a copper smelter in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra failed in 1993. The TN factory was first closed in November 1998 after the Madras High court found evidence of a gas leak and arsenic poising of the soil.
Production got going after a few days and the company expanded both capacity and environmental violations. Again in 20 September 2010, reacting to a writ petition by the National Trust for a Clean Environment, the Madras High Court shut the plant.
Production again resumed till a massive gas leak in March 2013 saw people suffocating and suffering from eye irritation and even miscarriages.
The Pollution Board closed the plant, but Sterlite denied any wrongdoing. The dispute finally went up to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the plant “did pollute the environment through emissions which did not conform to the standards laid down by the TNPCB…”. But once again Sterlite was let off the hook. The court allowed it to resume production with a fine of Rs 100 crore.
Despite all the environmental brouhaha, the London-headquartered Vedanta Resources Plc, of which Sterlite is a subsidiary, has grown rapidly reporting a 33 percent rise in revenue to $15.4 billion, and a surge in operating profit to $ 4.1 billion for financial year 2017-18. But its record as a corporate citizen has hardly been exemplary.
Vedanta fought and lost a long battle for bauxite mining rights in the Nyamgiri Hills, in the Kalahandi district of Orissa. When it got its regulatory permissions, it had not contended with the local Donghria Kondh tribal people who regarded the Hills as their soul and God, and who refused to let the company in.
The battle went to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 interestingly ruled that the local people should take a call. All the village councils voted against the project.
Last year Zambian farmers sought damages before a London court claiming that Vedanta subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines had destroyed their land and livelihood by polluting local water resources.
Looking at Vedanta’s sordid history of repression and environmental damage, it is obvious that collusion at all levels of government has been the order of the day. It is therefore refreshing to know that there are those who have taken corporate action against Vedanta. In 2010, the Church of England sold its $5.06 million stake, while a Norwegian Fund too exited in protest in 2007.
“We are not satisfied that Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect,” the Church of England said in a statement.
The two most common arguments used to bend the law are: shutdowns will extinguish jobs; and, the heavy investments already made will be lost. In fact, if Vedanta and its polluting ways are not stopped, the loss of jobs and lives will be much more severe as illustrated in recent days in Thoothukudi.
Arguing that shutting polluters is impractical as heavy investments will be lost is even more specious. It was used in the case of Sterlite by the apex court who limited itself to fining the company heavily.
As we have seen, thanks to official collusion, the Rs 100 crore fine proved to be no deterrent. If the Korean heavyweight steelmaker POSCO had to leave the country after committing $12 billion investments, why should Vedanta get special ‘protective’ treatment?