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For over two decades, the people of Tuticorin have been protesting against the Sterlite copper plant, alleging that it had been posing an environmental and health hazard. Their repeated pleas to the government fell on deaf ears.
The Quint spoke to P Ramnath, CEO of Sterlite Copper Vedanta Limited to get Sterlite’s answer to the people’s questions.
People VS Sterlite
22 May 2018
That fateful day was supposed to be a day of victory, as the people’s agitation against the Sterlite copper smelter plant entered its 100th day. But it turned out to be one of agony and violence. As they marched towards the Collectorate, violence broke out between the people and police. Soon, the cops opened fire, killing 13 and injuring at least 200.
A few days later, the state government was forced to order the permanent closure of the plant under pressure from the public.
Since then, the company has undertaken several efforts to appeal to the courts to, the government, and the National Green Tribunal to reopen the plant, but they have been given a big NO across all fronts.
Residents are fed up of getting no answers and now say they will remain firm on their stand – No more Sterlite.
Allegation 1: Sterlite Causes Cancer
Finding cancer patients wasn’t too difficult. Every street in Veerapandiapuram, Kumareddiyapuram, Pandarampatti, Sankaraperi and Silverpuram had an ailing patient.
There is a belt of factories around these villages but residents allege that the toxic fumes let out by the Sterlite plant is the cause.
There have been initial NEERI reports stating that Sterlite has let out harmful effluents into the air and the groundwater table. P Ramnath of Sterlite clarified that “there are several power plants, nearly 4000MW of electricity is being produced in Thoothukudi.
All these power plants use coal which contains 2% of sulphur.”
The thing is, Sterlite copper is the largest industry in Tuticorin but that does not make it the largest polluter in Tuticorin.P Ramnath, CEO, Sterlite Copper Vedanta Limited
Ramnath claims that as required by the Supreme Court order of 2013, Sterlite has been sending a medical van to these villages everyday, and they have been submitting all the records to the Pollution Control Board every six months.
Regular checkups of the employees and their families have been done, and they haven’t found any instances of cancer.
Allegation 2: Sterlite Has Polluted the Groundwater
The water table in the area has been depleted for decades now. But villagers say that since the effluents from Sterlite have been mixing with the groundwater, levels have dipped abysmally. They were able to use the water pumped through their borewells only for bathing, and even that would make their skin itch.
But Sterlite has brushed aside these allegations as well, saying it is a ‘Zero Liquid Discharge plant’ since its inception in 1995.
Ramnath said that over the years, they have spent over Rs 500 crore in various mitigation measures and even have state-of-the-art laser-based technology to detect any emission that leaves the premises. All these stats are monitored live by the Pollution Control Board, he says.
“We have even laid entire pipelines so that the village can get water through these pipelines, and prior to that we were supplying water through tankers,” he said.
In fact, in one of the villages, we even have a hotline so that in case of any issue. they can straight away call up and tell us their problems. But we haven’t got any such issues at all.P Ramnath, CEO, Sterlite Copper Vedanta Limited
Considering Thoothukudi is a water-deficient district, the company says they have behaved as a responsible manufacturing company and minimised utilising the groundwater for their industrial purposes.
Sterlite stated that every month, Pollution Control Board representatives had visited their plant and assessed the groundwater samples, and found that levels of all marker pollutants – arsenic, zinc, and fluorides – were found to be well below the permissible limits.
Allegation 3: Sterlite Joined Hands with Police to Instill Fear in People
When The Quint visited Tuticorin after the 22 May incident there, was seething anger. But two months later, there was fear. Fear of the police – and Sterlite.
The villagers alleged that the police have been knocking on their doors even during the wee hours of the night, and arresting men. When asked for the reason for the arrests, the police have said that they have been tracking people based on pictures and videos shown on media channels.
They also blamed Sterlite for tracking key leaders of the protest, bribing people and attempting to create internal conflict.
However, Sterlite brushed the allegations aside, saying they had nothing to do with the 22 May incident or the police atrocity thereafter.
“We were continuing our engagement with the local people, put out an ad in the newspaper asking protesters and activists to come forward and speak to us directly. But they refused,” said Ramnath.
Why No Survey Yet?
What is baffling is why the government has not initiated a study to find out the cause of the illnesses around Sterlite.
If the NEERI report found that the Sterlite factory’s emissions were way over the permissible limits, why were checks not conducted?
Why are there no reports released by the hospitals to show the number of cancer and respiratory disorder cases caused by inhaling toxic fumes?
Sterlite claims that this is nothing but a blame game, but the question is, what have they done to debunk the rumours?
The company said that they have been doing extensive CSR work, reaching out to the public, having constant dialogues with the villagers and conducting regular health check-ups.
As part of the judgement of the NGT in 2013, a health committee was formed which was supposed to conduct a complete health survey so that we have a complete record. Unfortunately, this committee has not done anything at all.Ramnath, CEO, Sterlite Copper – Vedanta Limited
The Tamil Nadu government is coming down on Sterlite copper unit with an iron hand, refusing to reopen it.
Sentiments are too fragile on the ground and people are not willing to give the company another chance. But Sterlite is asking the people of Tuticorin to hear them out.