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Protests against Sterlite Copper incited by a London NGO, says CEO P Ramnath ahead of NGT hearing

Talking to BusinessToday.In's Editor Rajeev Dubey, Sterlite Copper CEO P Ramnath pointed fingers at a London-based NGO called Foil Vedanta for inciting violent protests against the company earlier this year in March.

twitter-logoRajeev Dubey | July 30, 2018 | Updated 18:44 IST
Protests against Sterlite Copper incited by a London NGO, says CEO P Ramnath ahead of NGT hearing
Sterlite Copper CEO P Ramnath

Sterlite Copper's four lakh tonnes per annum copper smelting plant - comprising one-third of India's copper manufacturing capacity - at Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu remains shut since March this year after a state government order following violent protests against the plant. The legal battle to reopen it continues. Meanwhile, Union Minister of State for Water Resources Arjun Ram Meghwal, in reply to a question by AIADMK MP Sasikala Pushpa, has informed the Parliament that a Central Ground Water Board study in the SIPCOT area where the plant is located has found that the groundwater was polluted.

"The study found that most of the groundwater samples are contaminated with high total dissolved solids and heavy metals like Cadmium, Chromium, Manganese, Iron and arsenic beyond permissible limits," Meghwal said.

This has dealt a blow to Sterlite's chances of getting the plant re-opened in the July 30 hearing in the National Green Tribunal in Delhi. In response, Sterlite Copper said that its plant has been a zero-discharge facility since the beginning. On the eve of the hearing, BusinessToday.In's Rajeev Dubey spoke with Sterlite Copper CEO P Ramnath about the dispute.


Where does Sterlite Copper stand now after the Central Ground Water Board's report?

We are trying to get a copy of the report. They are saying that we have taken samples from SIPCOT area. It's a massive area.  So we don't know where they took the samples from. Of all the pollutants they are talking about, that is lead, manganese, cadmium, iron  & arsenic, the only marker pollutant amongst these is arsenic, because we don't have lead and cadmium in any of our materials. Every month, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board comes and takes samples. All these reports don't indicate arsenic above a certain limit, which is as good as zero. So we don't know how this has come about.

As per the NEERI report, copper's marker pollutants are arsenic, zinc and fluoride. In this report (by the Central Ground Water Board) they are talking about all kinds of all things - cadmium, manganese, lead. All these things are not (in copper). The only thing is arsenic. If you look at the trends from 2017 to March 2018, the limit is 0.05, the results are 0. These are all PCB records.

Where are these samples from then?

I have no idea regarding that. The Pollution Control Board takes reports from the plant and the nearby villages. And there is nothing wrong with the reports. All these are within permissible limits and most of them are even below the baseline.  All such reports are okay. So we don't know where this has come up from. We are trying to know and contact the ministry.

But the reports on the basis of which Tamil Nadu banned you, were they in sync with the pollution?

The grounds on which the Pollution Control Board gave us the consent to operate are these. First, they say that we have not submitted the groundwater reports to them. But, as I said, Pollution Control Board themselves visit our plants and collect the samples in our presence. And they give it to a third party and get the reports. Then they give us the reports.

Also Read: Tamil Nadu govt seeks dismissal of petition challenging closure of Sterlite Copper

All these 20 years you haven't submitted any reports?

We are not supposed to. When they said that, we said you please take back your report and see the third party report. Secondly, they say that arsenic in the ambient air has not been reported through any NABL-accredited laboratory. That was never a part of consent to operate. We have been doing through our own laboratory which is also a NABL-accredited laboratory. So if they would have said that we need to get it done through a third party, we would have done it and we could still do it.

The third thing they said was gypsum pod should be as per new CPCB guidelines. CPCB said that new guidelines are valid from October 2019, so we have time to do that and are in a process to do that.

And the fourth thing that they have said is about copper slag or copper concentrate. Nearly 30 per cent comes out as slag. This slag is used as a landfill material and in cement industry. And we have got the reports of Indian Toxicology Research Centre which says that it is non-toxic. So ten years ago slag was sold to a third party against an agreement, which clearly states the do's and dont's on how to use the product. That you are not allowed to throw it into a water body, etc. All such things were mentioned. This land is right next to a water channel. Over the past ten years, the landfill has eroded and fallen into the water. So they are putting all that on us. So we have taken the responsibility to the extent that whatever has fallen, we have taken and put it back. And now they say that you have to build a wall. But this is a third party's land. We don't have access to it. So we need time. We talked to the landowner and he has almost finished construction of the wall.

The fifth point was regarding hazardous waste authorization where every year we have to get a renewal. For that also we have applied to the Pollution Control Board. They have asked for more information and we have provided all the information but they have not renewed it yet. The matter is standing out there.

These are the five points on which they have rejected the consent to operate. These reasons are not reasons enough to close a plant. A plant which has existed for 22 years. A plant which is catering to 36 per cent of domestic demand, a plant which gives employment to nearly 5,000 people directly and 20,000 to 25,000 indirectly. Which means nearly 1.5 lakh are dependent on it. Then you have nearly two lakh CSR beneficiaries. So many downstream industries that were dependent on us have totally shut down. A downstream industry that was dependent on us for sulphuric acid has got completely shut. It had nearly 200 -250 employees. There was Coimbatore Fertilizer Company buying sulphuric acid from us. The prices of sulphuric acid shot up three times, from Rs 3,000-5,000 to nearly Rs 15,000 because we supply 40,000 tons sulphuric acid per month in Tamil Nadu and that area. So they have to either import sulphuric acid or buy it from various other places. Phosphoric acid prices have gone up by 20 per cent, prices of copper have gone up by 8 per cent. A lot of motor manufacturers in Coimbatore have shut down. The same locals who were incited and protested, the same people are coming back to us and asking for water, employment and all other infrastructure we were providing them in terms of pipeline. They have come to us and they are making representations to the Chief Minister, industries minister. We had villagers, transporters' union making representations to the collector.

Also Read:Vedanta's Green Woes

If you have figured out what's behind this, then who is it?

There are these NGOs based in London called Foil Vedanta who have traditionally spoken against. They have their contacts among local people. They have their NGOs in Tuticorin, Chennai, etc. They keep on raking various issues. All these issues have been raised and discussed in Supreme Court but they keep raking up the same things. Supreme Court has given a favourable judgment in 2013 and then again they tried to rake up an issue and again in 2013 that issue was closed in NGT. NGT has very clearly said that this particular plant of ours is not a pollutant and will not be a pollutant in the future itself.

For the last five years, there have been no complaints from the villagers. We've even got a hotline from the nearest village and also there have been no major show cause notices from the Pollution Control Board. So this has come as a complete surprise. This Chennai-based NGO has visited London and they have had meetings over there. A London-based chap has come to Tuticorin.

How were you able to discover a link between the two?

When he came from London, he held a public conference with them. It's all there in the newspapers. We got messages linking the local Tuticorin NGO to the Chennai NGO. If you just connect the dots, January is the visit of London NGO, and in February, suddenly we find this protest starting up. Actually, we were planning our expansion and we started expansion in June 2017. There was no problem till February. Then they escalated the thing and roped in a Christian preacher, who had a large following. So there was a  mass gathering on March 24.

Who was this preacher?

Mohan Lazarus. Two-three days before March 24, he released a video which is available on Youtube and incited people due to which March 24 became a big affair. And suddenly in the first week of April, the Pollution Control Board comes in and refuses consent to operate. Social media was full of inciting messages, saying that Sterlite Copper is responsible for cancer and Tuticorin is the cancer capital of India. Whereas if you see, Chennai and other places are in the top three. Tuticorin is number 14 in males and number 25 in females. And if you see occupational reasons, they are very low. There are many more reasons like diet, smoking. These are the major reasons.

One other thing that is very rarely spoken is that it's an industrial town developed as a national corridor. Power plants there are all running on old technology and there are 4000 MW of power plants in Tuticorin. They emit sulphur dioxide impurity because they are permitted to emit as per Ministry of Environment, and there is no condition imposed on them. But for the first time in 22 years, after this issue happened, we really challenged this - produce just 1 per cent of sulphur dioxide in the city whereas, 98 per cent is coming from these four plants. Immediately, pollution board issued a notice to these power plants that if by 2020 they don't set this right they will be shut down. So the question that we ask is that people have been struggling from pollution load. This was also in 2013 Supreme Court order that state will conduct the health survey and the carrying capacity of the town for sulphur dioxide and do a proper load balancing.

The question that we are going to ask is that the state doesn't act on court's principle, you shut the plant because people protest. Lazarus makes a statement: "This is the time for you to believe that this community will live only if we protest or else we will die because of Sterlite". He converts the entire thing into 'no choice'. After all this, it takes another angle. The Pollution Control Board has given two month's time to the power plants, but ours was immediately shut down. SIPCOT has close to 65 industries, we have got only one occupying only 400 acres of land. There are another 10,000 acres of land occupied by other industry. So who all are discharging pollutants? We can't conduct a survey. Let the Ministry of Environment conduct one. We'll get to know who all are discharging and why. We'll have an answer.

Also Read:How badly will Sterlite Copper shutdown affect copper production in India

But there's also the allegation that the window of time in which you got permission to expand the second facility was created only for you.

There was a notification of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which says that no public hearing is required for any land acquired prior to 2006. This land was allotted prior to 2016. And we were to start our expansion based on this in 2009. But due to some reasons, we could not get the consent to establish. Now it is the same land we are planning to establish our entire industry since we got consent to establish in 2016 valid till 2023. So it is something applicable to all industries, EIA 2006 is applicable to all industries.

But the allegation is that it was made specifically for you.

Not at all, There's no political angle to it. The law of land was done by the Ministry of Environment, not by Tamil Nadu, and it was the same for all the industries. The state government has no role to play in it.

What is NGT's authority to restart the plant?

NGT can direct the state to give the certificate to operate if they find that nothing is wrong.

They can direct, or request?

The situation in the law is as follows. There is a prescribed procedure by which we request notice. They give five charges and we are to respond. These five charges are enough to stop an industry. NGT has to hear on merits. So around merits, we have brought our case to NGT but the Tamil Nadu state has come to challenge. They are saying that this should not be discussed at all in NGT so this matter is sub judice. In Jharkhand, Bihar, Bombay, they have directed the PCB to act in line with the law which is basically giving the industry, a chance to prove itself. The previous NGT had asked us to amend a few things in our plant which we did.

Copper cannot come from heaven. It has to be made either in India or abroad. If India doesn't want to make copper than close all the plants. If you can't close the other 3 plants then give us a fair chance to operate.

You have to look at the per capita consumption of copper, its only 0.5 kg as compared to China which is 7 kg and world standard is 3-4 kg. And now the government has started rural electrification, track electrification, etc. All these require copper. Renewable energy requires   5-6  times the copper as required in thermal energy, electric vehicles will use 5-6 times more copper. The growth of copper is phenomenal. So we are trying to match the capacity. Out of total 10 lakh tonnes of capacity, our domestic demand is nearly 700 thousand, and the remaining 300 thousand is exported. This 300 thousand demand will be covered in the next few years and we would be in shortage of copper. So we were looking to catch up with demand. We have this regional Comprehensive Economic Program, it's going to be the mother of all FTAs. China is also a part of it. China over the years is increasing its capacity for domestic consumption, 3 million tonnes of existing capacity is added. China's rate of copper consumption was in double digits until a few years ago, now their entire infrastructure is built for around 20 - 25 years. So their entire copper consumption has come down and growth has come down to single digits, some 2-3 pc. On one hand, they are increasing their capacity, but their consumption has reduced. So where will that copper go?

How much investment has gone into this plant?

Rs 2,500 crore.

Including the new one?

No that is another Rs 3,700 crore, nearly Rs 2,000 crore committed.

How much is invested?

You can say about Rs 2000 crore. The investment might be little less, we have to check. But a lot of it has been committed, contracts have been made. We have to get into that as how to get back the advance and other things. We even started hiring people for that, the locals. It would have provided another 500 - 1000 employment.

How hopeful are you about the July 30 NGT judgement?

We are hopeful. we'll see how it goes. It is a legal process. We would present our facts, we are strong on facts

Is NGT the only legal means that you have taken or there is Supreme Court or High Court as well?

We can't go to the Supreme Court right now. After NGT, the next is the Supreme Court.

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