Inside Sterlite Copper case: People, the big casualty of the transition from prot to planet

Economic Times, February 19, 2021

By Pradeep S. Mehta and Sakhi Shah

The debate of balancing human rights and economic rights is not a new one. Perhaps one of the oldest facets of this dichotomy is how to harmonise environment and individual economic and livelihood rights. Almost all policies and decisions by the three branches of the government in attempting to address this gulf have been inclined towards environmental over economic concerns. The wisdom of these decisions, however, is questionable, since people’s livelihoods do not get the same attention. In such situations, we need to ensure that benets outweigh costs when applying a cease order.

There has been a global transition from the traditional bottom line, where a business was assessed by its share value, to the triple bottom line (TBL): People, Planet, and Prot. The policy and governance framework has, however, simply moved from prot to planet. And in that transition, the ‘people’ continue to be ignored as we fail to understand that economic dimensions are equally important for intergenerational equity, as is clean air to breathe.

The fault lines in this half-transition are exposed in the small city of Thoothukudi, located in south of Tamil Nadu, where the Sterlite copper plant has been closed since 2018. Mohan, a contract employee with Sterlite for 14 years before it was closed, has found no stable job and income since. At CUTS, we are doing a study for the NITI Aayog on looking at cost benets of judicial orders which have impacted the economy. During our eld work on the Sterlite case, when we met Mohan, it had been 30 days since he found any work at all, aecting his loan repayments and compelling his wife to start working, at a below-minimum wage of Rs 200 (on good days). Home to one of the major ports of Tamil Nadu, the V O Chidambaranar Port Trust, the city has seen its economy wither away despite its geographical importance to trade and industry. “Thoothukudi has gone back at least 10 to 15 years”, said Vijay, Director of one of the biggest infrastructure and warehousing companies in Thoothukudi.

The contention, however, is that everyone is now breathing cleaner air, and drinking better water, thus overshadowing any adverse economic impact. What are the fault lines in this approach?

Firstly, the means to ensure intergenerational equity are more often than not limited to the well-being of the ‘planet’. Thus, we fail to give due importance to the inability of individuals to aord education, healthcare, insurance cover and much more, which are equally important for intergenerational equity. This inability is exacerbated by decisions akin to the Sterlite plant closure, which has caused an unimaginable downward-spiralling impact on the people of Thoothukudi.

Deepak, another contract employee with Sterlite, is currently working irregular shifts in the vegetable market and in dierent households, at a 90% reduction in salary. This however does not begin to cover the ripple eect the closure of the Sterlite plant has had on his family. Sustaining on a pair of torn shoes, unable to provide a monthly subsistence of about Rs 5,000 to his parents, Deepak is looking for stability and a chance to educate his children.
Devoid of such chances, Deepak and the generations to follow might breathe cleaner air, but will still not lead equitable lives.

Secondly, the 20th century ode that “the business of business must be only business” impairs the understanding of what is the purpose of business, which must revolve around the rst P of the TBL – people. A lack of this understanding – which runs common in businesses and governments – is seen when governments or courts take decisions against companies, devoid of any recourse or reforms for people associated with the business.

Lastly, the traditional understanding of ‘prot’ needs to change, radically and immediately. The contributions by employees and other stakeholders of the company need to be factored in. Sans that, their perspectives should be considered when looking at the planet. Either way, it is more critical than ever to realise the contribution and importance of people, in both prot and planet, and when transitioning from the former to the latter.

When the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the Madras High Court decided to stop operations of the Sterlite plant, they failed to take into consideration the impact of their decision on the thousands of direct and indirect employees, and on the many businesses dependent on Sterlite. Also, it has aected our balance of payments; from being net exporters we have become net importers of copper.

The criticality of having adequate means of living cannot be oset simply by fostering a cleaner and greener ethical dilemmas, but empathetic and resilient solutions. That is wisdom.

Technology has advanced so much that solutions to deal with environmental burdens can be found and implemented easily. As a proper remedy the judiciary should ask the businesses to respond accordingly rather than to tell them to stop their operations. The people of Thoothukudi are now awaiting a pragmatic decision by the Supreme Court in the hope that the verdict will take into account people and ensure comprehensive justice covering economics, environment and equity.

Pradeep S. Mehta is Secretary General and Sakhi Shah is Senior Research Associate at CUTS International. Amol
Kulkarni and Kapil Gupta of CUTS contributed to this article.


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