Sterlite typifies all that's wrong with environmental governance in India

Sterlite Copper's survival despite being shutdown five times in the past two decades owes much to India's malleable regulatory authorities

By Akshit Sangomla,
Published: Wednesday 27 June 2018
The May 28 shutdown order on the gate of the Sterlite Copper factory in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu (Photographs: Akshit Sangomla)

The sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi is shut. For now. Expectedly, everybody rejoiced as a 23-year struggle against a polluting industry ended successfully, though at a great human cost. But there is a quiet unease in this coastal city of Tamil Nadu. There is a feeling that something has got to give. The feeling is evident when one talks to the residents, who are seething in anger after the May 22 police firing in which 13 protesters were killed.

That day, about 15,000 people were on the streets, demanding closure of the plant, which is India’s largest copper-producing factory owned by England-based Vedanta Limited. Copper smelting is a highly polluting process and the protests started in February when Sterlite Copper announced to double its annual production from 0.4 million tonnes to 0.8 million tonnes.

To soothe the people’s anger, the government announced a compensation of R10 lakh for the family members of the deceased on May 24 and increased it to R20 lakh on May 27. But that has clearly not helped. “If we kill someone from their family and offer them money, will they agree to it?” asks Ratna (name changed) of Kumare-diyapuram village in Thoothukudi. Kumarediyapuram is the village closest to the copper plant and has been the starting point of most protests. The demand of the people was simple—permanent closure of Sterlite.

On May 23, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court stayed its expansion after hearing petitions filed by advocates and activists. The next day, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) disconnected the electricity and water supply to the plant, and on May 28 the district collector of Thoothukudi, Sandeep Nanduri, sealed and announced permanent closure of Sterlite Copper on orders from the state government. The basis of the shutdown decision was an April 9 order of TNPCB that blamed Sterlite for causing groundwater pollution under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974. Thoothukudi residents, however, fear that Sterlite will reopen. Before 2018, the plant has been shut four times since it became operational in 1995. But it always reopens.

Activists who have followed the issue say that Sterlite manages to run because it has the support of the state government and institutions like the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and TNPCB. They also say that Sterlite may challenge the current shutdown order in court and reopen. Nityanand Jayaraman, a writer and activist who has followed the issue since 2002, says that the April 9 order of TNPCB is designed to fail and will not withstand legal scrutiny. If the Tamil Nadu government cannot prove Sterlite’s wrongdoings, the court might allow the plant to reopen. Politicians like M K Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, which is in the opposition in Tamil Nadu, have called the state government’s order “an eyewash” intended to dilute the current situation. The government, on the other hand, has accused the opposition of instigating the protests for political gains.

Sterlite is quite unfazed by all this opposition and denies any wrongdoing. A statement issued by the company to the media on May 28 says that Sterlite has “operated the plant for over 22 years in most transparent and sustainable way”. Sources from Sterlite have also told the media that the company might challenge the current shutdown because the authorities have not cited any evidence of pollution. It is just waiting for the public anger to subside.

Protesters celebrate the closure of Sterlite in Thoothukudi but remain weary because the company always manages to reopen

Sterlite employs around 3,500 people directly and claims to provide employment to 35,000 indirectly through its business transactions. The plant produces 36 per cent of the copper used in India and a shutdown might have an impact not just on the copper industry but also on many manufacturing industries, like automotive. But if its industrial importance and criticality to the region’s economy is true, so is the adverse health impact it has had on the people of the region.

A report, titled “Health Status and Epidemiological Study Around 5 km Radius of Sterlite Industries (India) Limited, Thoothukudi”, published by the Tirunelveli Medical College in 2008, states that 50 per cent of the people of the region die of diseases and chronic illnesses and around 50 per cent women are anaemic. It also adds that 49 per cent schoolchildren are underweight and 41 per cent are stunted. “Women in the villages around Sterlite, some of them just 35 years old, have undergone operations to get their uteruses removed for fear of infections. Many have undergone abortions because the baby could not survive in the womb,” says Rani (name changed) from Kumare-diyapuram. On multiple accounts people have complained to the authorities of health problems like breathing disorders, skin and eye ailments, miscarriages and even cancer.

Copper smelting causes air, water and land pollution. The process releases sulphur dioxide gas, a known pollutant that causes respiratory ailments. The Tirunelveli Medical College report found that 13 per cent people suffered respiratory ailments, which is much higher than the rate in the nearby areas. The smelting process also releases radon, iron, manganese, lead, arsenic, nitrates and fluorides, which reach the water sources and the soil through the industrial slag. Apart from the usual contamination in the smelting process, the plant has seen 27 industrial accidents and gas leaks between 1997 and 2013, says Jayaraman.


Inconsistencies in NEERI reports have helped Sterlite escape accountability

“Despite all its faults, Sterlite has managed to stay running by paying money to the powers that be,” claims Fatima Babu, a Thoothukudi-based environmentalist who has been protesting against the company since 1995 (see ‘Surviving despite violations’). A case in point is NEERI, which has conducted five studies (in 1998,1999, 2003,2005 and 2011) on the environmental impacts of the Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi and come up with different results.

The first of these was conducted on the direction of the Madras High Court and submitted to the court in November 1998. The court was hearing a petition filed by the National Trust for Clean Environment, a non-profit that does not exist any more, in 1996 against pollution caused by Sterlite in the district. This report clearly stated the environmental norms flouted by Sterlite in the construction of the plant.

First, the plant was built 14 km from the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, while the mandated distance from an eco sensitive zone for a hazardous industry like copper smelting should have been, as per NEERI, more than 25 km. The report also found that Sterlite had somehow convinced TNPCB to reduce the green belt required around a hazardous polluting plant from 250 m to just 25 m.

But months after the first report, in February 1999, NEERI gave a clean chit to Sterlite, in its second Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report, though it had found more than permissible amounts of groundwater pollutants like lead, cadmium, selenium, arsenic, magnesium and copper in and around the factory. Arsenic, for instance, was found almost 20 times the permissible limit in water samples taken from borewells and dugwells. “This was the beginning of a bonanza for NEERI. An RTI query filed with NEERI shows that Sterlite paid the institute R1.27 crore between 1999 and 2007 for preparing EIA reports,” says Jayaraman (see ‘Running with Sterlite, hunting with courts’). NEERI prepared three EIA reports in this duration—in 1999, 2003 and 2005. “None of these were as harsh on the company as the 1998 report, which was conducted on the order of the Madras High Court and for which NEERI did not receive any money from Sterlite,” adds Jayaraman.

The judgement in the 1996 case came in September 2010 and the Madras High Court ordered the closure of the plant. Sterlite appealed against the decision in the Supreme Court and got a stay within three days. The Supreme Court again directed NEERI to conduct another assessment of the site, which it did and submitted the report in June 2011. Remarkably, in the “Observations” section of the report, NEERI stated that it did not find any marker pollutants, like arsenic, zinc and fluoride in the ground water samples it tested, while the data provided in the same study showed that fluorides were in more than permissible levels in six of 12 samples from piezometric wells. In one sample, fluorides were almost twice the permissible limit.

Third Mile, one of the five sites in Thoothukudi, where
anti-Sterlite protesters were shot at by the police on May 22

The 2011 report also stated that though NEERI had found radon, a radioactive gas, in the range of 5-23 Bq/m3 (Becquerel is a unit of radioactivity) in the vicinity of the plant, there were no national or international standards to compare it with the permissible levels. This is incorrect. The United States Environment Protection Agency’s stipulated level for outdoor radon gas is 14.8 Bq/m3. Radon gas is emitted from the natural radioactive decay of uranium, and copper ores used by Sterlite could also be contaminated with uranium.

The 2011 report also found glaring levels of iron, magnesium, calcium and sulphates around the factory, but rather than give an indictment to help the court pronounce a strict punishment, NEERI advised Sterlite to improve the scenario. It even stated that in certain instances the high amounts of pollutants could not be directly attributed to Sterlite. It blamed adjacent industries, like Kilburn Chemicals Ltd, which manufac-tures titanium oxide, for the high concentration of iron. As a result, the Supreme Court in its 2013 judgement accepted that Sterlite had caused pollution in and around the plant, but did not uphold the Madras High Court’s shutdown order. Instead, it asked the company to pay a R100 crore fine. In the apex court, Sterlite said that NEERI and TNPCB had provided it advisories to become a model plant, which it would follow. But Jayaraman says that Sterlite has taken no actions to reduce pollution and the people living around the plant are still suffering.

There is another norm that Sterlite has flouted. In the 2011 NEERI report, Sterlite said that its operational area was 102.5 hectares (ha) and that it sought to add another 65 ha to undertake waste management operations. In 2012, a joint inspection report by TNPCB and NEERI found the operational area of the plant to be 172.13 ha, but there was no waste management being done. “What’s worse, TNPCB has stopped the real-time monitoring of the plant since 2013, as is required by the Central Pollution Control Board,” says Jeeva Karikalan, a writer and environment activist based in Chennai and a native of Thoothukudi. This is what has activists worried the most. Since TNPCB has not been monitoring, its pronoun-cements will not stand in court. Perhaps this is what Sterlite is banking on.

“This is not the first time India’s pollution regulatory institutions are being blamed for ineptitude,” says N Raghuram, president of Delhi-based Indian Nitrogen Group, a society of scientists working on nitrogen pollution. NEERI, for instance, has come under fire many times for producing dubious environment reports. In 1993, it prepared two reports on the effects of pollution on the Taj Mahal and blamed the local industries for it, not the Mathura Oil Refinery, a major polluter in the region. The reports had several discrepancies in pollution data (see ‘The trouble with the trapezmium’, Down To Earth, 1-15 April, 1996). Similar was the case in 2014 when NEERI bungled the EIA report on the construction of the Tadadi Port on Karnataka’s Aghnashini estuary. To mask the pristine nature of the estuary, the EIA team under-represented the flora and fauna from the region and exaggerated the area of the estuary (see ‘An ecological faith’, Down To Earth, 1-15 January, 2018).

“The Sterlite Copper has been shut because of a people’s movement, not because of TNPCB or NEERI. This should be a wake up call for everyone who is trying to project India as a global environment leader,” says Raghuram. “The operational secrecy of our regulatory systems has rendered them toothless. Science requires public scrutiny to progress,” he adds.


Regulatory mechanism needs to be overhauled and made independent

Thoothukudi typifies all that is wrong with the environmental governance in the country. Our regulatory bodies are susceptible to manipulation and end up taking the side of industries over that of the people. What is needed in Thoothukudi is a permanent closure of the plant, which has happened, and cleaning up of the district, especially its water resources.

“Reclamation of groundwater is very difficult even though technologies for doing so are available,” says Manish Rahate, a former scientist on water technology at NEERI. It requires extraction, treatment and re-pumping of groundwater. This can be quite expensive and long-drawn because it is technologically difficult to decontaminate water sources that have been polluted indiscriminately for a long period. Some of the pollutants have long retention time in water, sometimes running into thousands of years. Treatment will depend upon various factors including the water source (whether it is groundwater or surface water), the volume, depth of the water and the type and amount of chemical in the water. “Groundwater pollution, like what has happened in Thoothukudi, is an irreparable environmental loss to the community,” Rahate adds.

Economics of the production of copper might be a major factor for Sterlite’s reluctance to reduce its pollution and manage waste better. The company needs to keep its production costs low enough to be competitive in the market and, therefore, use other methods to get around regulations. “The punitive measures are not strong enough to ensure that companies are forced to meet the environmental norms. For 20 years we have not been able to take action because it is cheaper for Sterlite to pollute, fight in court and get away with it,” says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment. We also need major institutional reforms in our pollution control boards, both in terms of capacity-building and in making them more independent.

“The will of the government and TNPCB to stand by their orders will decide the future of Sterlite If they defend the current evidence, the plant will remain shut. If they are not able to do so then Sterlite will be back in operation,” says Raghuram. “These institutions were designed back in 1974 and need major overhaul. We need pollution control boards that understand the realities of the 21st century,” says Bhushan.

(This article was first published in the 16-30th June issue of Down To Earth under the headline 'Repeat offender').

Sterlite has flouted all the rules in the book but stayed afloat by manipulating authorities
  • 1992: Sterlite first proposed a copper smelting plant in Maharashtra and was allotted 202 hectares in Ratnagiri
  • 1993: A Maharashtra state government committee finds that the plant poses a danger to people and livelihood. District collector stalls the construction
  • 1994: Tamil Nadu allows and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) issues an NoC with a condition that the plant should be 25 km from the Gulf of Mannar, an eco-sensitive zone. It also asked Sterlite to conduct an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)
  • January 1995: The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) issues environmental clearance to Sterlite. No EIA submitted by Sterlite till then
  • May 1995: TNPCB issues a Consent to Establish allowing Sterlite to start construction. It also asked the company for a rapid EIA. The plant is constructed 14 km from the Gulf of Mannar
  • 1996: TNPCB issues the plant a licence to operate under the conditions that the factory does not contaminate ground water and air and the Sterlite develop a green belt of 25 m around the factory
  • November 1998: Madras High Court directs the National Environmental Engineering Institute (NEERI) to study the environmental impact of the plant. NEERI finds that Sterlite has flouted a series of environmental regulations. Madras High Court orders a shutdown
  • December 1998: Madras High Court modifies its earlier order and directs NEERI to conduct another study
  • February 1999: NEERI recommends the factory to be run at full capacity and a detailed EIA to be conducted
  • March 1999: TNPCB gives clean chit to Sterlite on complaints of local residents regarding health impacts due to gas leaks and allows it to increase capacity from 40,000 tonnes to 70,000 tonnes
  • July 2003: Sterlite submits EIA after a delay of nine years
  • September 2004: Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) inspects Sterlite and recommends that permission to expand production for the plant should not be given
  • September 2004: MoEF allows Sterlite to expand capacity
  • November 2004: TNPCB says Sterlite illegally producing copper, more than double the amount it was licensed to
  • 2005: MoEF, SCMC ask TNPCB to allow Sterlite to operate despite the violations
  • September 2010: Madras High Court orders Sterlite shutdown in 1996 case
  • October 2010: Supreme Court stays the Madras High Court order
  • March 2013: TNPCB orders another shutdown of the Sterlite as people complain of a gas leak that caused suffocation, coughing and eye problems. Sterlite challenges the order saying the other factories are causing the pollution. The closure is revoked
  • April 2013: Supreme Court delivers the final judgement, accepting that Sterlite polluted Thoothukudi. But the apex court does not shut the plant on account of its effect on the economy and jobs. It fines Sterlite R100 crore
  • April 2018: TNPCB declines Sterlite a renewal of its consent to operate based on its violation of environmental norms
  • May 23, 2018: TNPCB orders disconnection of power and water supply to Sterlite and Madras High Court stays the expansion of the plant
  • May 28, 2018: The Tamil Nadu government orders permanent shutdown of the plant

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