It’s high time Central and State Governments as well as NGT step in to ensure environmental safety and go beyond economic considerations
Tuticorin or Thootikudi in Tamil Nadu has been the epicenter of continuous protests against pollution caused by the Sterlite Copper Unit and the expansion of the same. Tuticorin, which is about 600 km away from the State capital of Chennai, made to the news for unfortunate reasons on May 22 as at least nine people were killed and another 20 injured on the 100th day of the protest. Sterlite Copper represents the copper unit of Vedanta limited, which operates a 400,000 tonne per annum-plant in Tuticorin. Sterlite has been at the receiving end of long-standing protests from people of the area who have been alleging that the plant was polluting groundwater and causing air pollution in their area.
Sterlite unit has had a long history of pollution problems and controversies. Recently in March this year, the residents of Tuticorin woke up to itchy eyes, burning throat and breathing trouble. As they suffered an unusual morning, the reason soon became clear — Sterlite Industries was the cause. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) quickly swung into action and found out that the unit has been releasing noxious gas in the air. TNPCB probe found out that sulpher-dioxide levels had gone off the charts on the night of March 23. It showed a reading of 2939.55-mg/cubic meter against the prescribed limit of 1250 mg/cubic meter. It also said that the emission monitor was not connected with the air care centre of TNPCB. The board then issued a closure order for the factory. This incident alone shows the scant disregard of Sterlite Industries for the people's health and environment.
Sterlite's Tuticorin copper smelter unit has been at the centre of controversy right from its inception. legal battles started in 1996 when the National Trust for Clean Environment challenged the clearances granted to it at the Madras High Court. The factory was accused of polluting the environment and causing irreparable health hazards. The problem is mainly due to the location of the unit as it is too close to the ecologically sensitive region of the Gulf of Mannar and there is a clear lack of sufficient green belt around the factory. Add to this, public hearings were not held before giving the plant a go-ahead. These factors and the fact that pollutants from the factory are seeping into the ground water have pitched Sterlite and the people on two opposing sides.
The unfortunate aspect is how economic and financial considerations and profit driven motives continue to gain priority over public and environmental safety. The evidence of Sterlite Industries being given all necessary approvals to set up operations inspite of the location being in ecologically sensitive zone is proof enough. The same trend of disregard can be seen in asbestos manufacturers too who continue to successfully stave off national and international legislation on the carcinogenic fibre citing lack of scientific certainty. Dow Chemical and Union Carbide continue to deny that Methyl Isocyanate has anything to do with the lasting effects on the health of those exposed to the disastrous gas leak in Bhopal in 1984.
It is quite surprising as to how an industry was allowed to function since 1996 even after its adverse impacts on the public and environment were not only proven by various Government and private studies but were also explicitly brought forward by protesting locals. The ongoing stir in Tuticorin and the unfortunate loss of life of the protestors is a continuance of the same while the Tamil Nadu Government is busy quelling the protests with an iron hand. It is time for the Union Government to come to the aid of the beleaguered people of Tuticorin whose cause is clearly not on priority for the State Government.
Given these disturbing facts and evidences, it is intriguing how the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been unable to take a swift action as it took on 15-year old diesel and 10-year old petrol vehicles, especially given the fact that the adverse impacts of Sterlite Units pollution are far more lethal to human health than that of vehicular pollution. Currently, the NGT has only called for an independent inspection of the machinery by an expert committee comprising members from the Indian Institute of Technology (Chennai). But going by the number of people dying in protests and lengthening queues outside health care clinics, there is need to take more impactful action here by the NGT and the Government.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)