Pro-Sterlite villagers come to Delhi, demand early hearing of case from SC

Business Standard, March 24, 2023

The clamour for the reopening of the Sterlite Copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, now closed for the past five years, is growing louder every day.

Ten persons from different villages of Thoothukudi, notably Therekuveerapandiyuram and Kayaloorani, reached the Capital on Friday to articulate their grievances at a press conference at the Tamil Nadu House.

These men and women, who have all been affected, are demanding an early hearing from the Supreme Court because of the adverse impact of the Sterlite plant closure on the lives and livelihoods of the people and the mounting losses to the state and national exchequers.

The pro-Sterlite villagers also plan to march to the Supreme Court and present their case for an early resolution of the case. They say that they had waited for five years hoping for a better future without much success and now want an early hearing.

The villagers also argued how the current geopolitical situation of high inflation, and a breakdown in the supply chains because of the Russia-Ukraine war, was making the import of copper hugely expensive. It makes little sense to import copper when there was already a copper smelter plant in the country, they say.

The villagers also pointed out that allegations of environmental pollution against the company had already been held to be baseless by the National Green Tribunal, which had affirmed that there was zero discharge of pollutants from the factory.

They also spoke about the sufferings of lakhs of people who had been rendered jobless directly or indirectly by the closure. The plant, which was made operational during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic to produce oxygen, should be restarted, they said.\

A study by the Jaipur-based Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS), a not-for-profit organisation working on issues of public interest after the closure of the Sterlite copper smelter plant in May 2018, confirms the statements and views of the villagers.

The report, backed by the NITI Aayog and Government of India, titled ‘Economic Impact of Select Decisions of the Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal of India: Synthetic Report’, says the total losses to Sterlite stakeholders were Rs 14,794 crore; indirect and direct job losses added up to 30,000; and workers’ monthly income went down by 50 per cent, their total salary losses amounting to Rs 146 crore.

Downstream industries suffered net losses of Rs 491 crore, besides revenue losses of Rs 2,559 crore in taxes to the government.

And the assessment was only for a period of 28 months — from February 2019 to May 2021. The report also pointed out that there was a significant outgo of foreign exchange because of the reduction in net copper production by 46.1 per cent during that period.

From being a net copper exporter, India became a net importer, thus adversely impacting the country’s balance of payments. The company also lost nearly Rs 5 crore daily after its closure. Moreover, the plant was the only indigenous phosphoric acid supplier and the critical slag and gypsum supplier to nearly 20 cement companies.

Downstream players depended on the copper plant for five types of raw materials: gypsum, sulphuric acid, phosphoric acid, copper cathode and copper rod. After the plant’s closure, therefore, associated industries dependent on the Sterlite plant faced considerable difficulties in terms of the cost of procurement of raw materials.

It did impact their procurement cost as well as the time taken to procure the imported raw material, the quality of raw material, the bargaining power of such businesses in price negotiations, the time cycle of procurement and payments, and the subsequent liquidity challenges.

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