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Sterlite’s Thoothukudi unit a repeat offender

04 Oct 2010

By Nityanand Jayaraman
Express News Service

The recent High Court-ordered closure of Sterlite’s copper smelter in Thoothukudi and the subsequent relief granted to it by the Supreme Court raise some important questions. Can a factory this size ever be closed down for environmental reasons?

The company, with a turnover of Rs 13,000 crore, claims to employ 1,100 directly and 2,500 indirectly. Among other things, Sterlite has argued that shutting down the factory would affect the workers dependent on it. But this, and any other notion of corporate social responsibility, is insincere. Vedanta, Sterlite, or any other corporation does not, cannot care for its workers. As Milton Friedman, the right-wing guru of free-marketers said: "When a building cannot have social responsibility, who says a corporation can?" The only socially responsible thing for a corporation to do is to make profits, he declared.

He’s right. How else would you explain the fact that one of the first things that Vedanta did after taking over Balco was to lay off 2,000 workers? Or the fact that during the global downturn of 2008, Vedanta subsidiary Malco shut down the aluminum smelter in Mettur where 250 permanent and 500 contract employees worked? Let’s get our facts straight. Keeping the Sterlite factory running has more to do with Anil Agarwal’s riches than the well-being of workers. The latter is purely incidental. That said, the law is very clear. If a factory is shut down for environmental reasons, workers will have to be compensated.

Second, we are discussing violations of environmental laws here. Sterlite and other Vedanta subsidiaries have demonstrated a pattern of disregard to such laws. For nearly a decade until 2008, Malco mined bauxite from Kolli Hills with no mining or environmental licences. Before a hazardous factory is constructed, a clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and a Consent to Establish from the Pollution Control Board are mandatory. In 2004, Sterlite set up a 300,000 tpa copper smelter complex with neither licence. Construction of its power plant in Mettur was begun without permission. Last month, Jairam Ramesh hauled up Vedanta for commencing construction at the Lanjigarh refinery without permission.

If all these violations had no effect, it may not matter much. But in Thoothukudi, the consequences have been severe. The Madras High Court has observed that the factory site is so polluted that the entire premises may be classified as hazardous wastes. The groundwater beneath the factory is laced with arsenic, chromium and lead. Exposure to arsenic through drinking water can cause cancers of the lung, skin, bladder, prostate, kidney, nasal passage, liver and also stillbirths, heart attack, diabetes, chronic inflammation of the kidneys, degenerative kidney diseases, hypertension, bronchitis, chronic airway obstruction, lymphoma, black-foot disease and developmental deficits.

If any company is crying out for closure, it is this. The blame for the environmental disaster in Thoothukudi, though, is not merely Sterlite’s. They may have fulfilled their “social responsibility” of maximising profits. It is our spineless and compromised environmental bureaucracy – the TNPCB and the MoEF – that have failed us.

(The author is a Chennai-based writer and researcher)

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