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Sterlite protests: Vedanta's Anil Agarwal dismisses environmental concerns, says firm ready for probe

Rajeev Dubey     May 29, 2018

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board's decision to permanently close the Vedanta Group's copper plant in Tuticorin following the protests and subsequent deaths is likely to have far-reaching economic fallout. The closure of the Sterlite Copper plant will not only hurt one third of domestic supply but will also lead to a temporary spurt in domestic prices, costing India around $2.8 billion in forex annually. As Vedanta's copper smelter serves over 800 small and medium enterprises, over 32,500 direct and indirect jobs could be affected. The company says the decision to shut down the plant would make India a net importer of copper. The state government has endorsed the board's decision, and also asked it to close the plant permanently, but the company is deciding on the future course of action. Vedanta Chairman Anil Agarwal, in an e-mail interview with BusinessToday.In talked about the allegations against the facility, and how the company plans to handle the situation.

The Tamil Nadu government has shut the Tuticorin plant "in public interest" according to the closure notice. What was you first reaction when you heard about this notice?

Closure of Sterlite Copper plant is an unfortunate development, especially since we have operated the plant for over 22 years in most transparent and sustainable way, contributing to the Tuticorin and the state's socio-economic development. We will decide on the future course of action.

Now that the plant is shut, what's your next course of action? How do you plan to deal with the current crisis?

We will decide on the future course of action, in due time.

There are multiple allegations of violation of environmental norms against the facility. How do you plan to address these allegations?

Sterlite Copper is among the best copper smelters in the world in terms of environmental practices and the entire plant complex uses the best in class technologies from around the world. We have invested more than Rs 500 crore in environmental protection measures which is among the highest spend by any industry standard.

We have the confidence to undergo scrutiny by any technical committee and prove to the people that all the allegations related to health concerns were done with mala fide intentions.

The exemption from environmental clearance in the SIPCOT facility is alleged to have been a case of gross favouritism?

Any industrial/land policy applies that to Sterlite will also apply to other industries in the state or the country. It is worth noting that Sterlite Copper has been subject to various stringent regulations like zero liquid discharge wherein not a single drop of waste water can be let out of the company premises whereas various other industries are allowed to let out their effluents. So it is baseless to state that Sterlite was in receipt of gross favaouritism.

Natives there say the effluents are causing cancer and other diseases?

We follow stringent environment norms. We have enough data and research reports to prove that none of the allegations are true. We are also open to scrutiny by any independent technical committee either from India or from any part of the world to prove that Sterlite Copper is among the best smelters in the world with world class environmental practices.

Vedanta is committed to sustainable operations across all business units. The company holds strong values and abides by every rule and regulation laid out by authorities while developing our assets. We sincerely follow zero harm, zero discharge and zero waste policy across units.

The protests against Sterlite Copper have taken a political hue. What do you think is fueling this?

We have strong reason to believe that the current protests are being orchestrated by anti-developmental activists.

Vedanta and Sterlite have faced similar protests from environmentalists in Niyamgiri as well as in Goa. How are these any different? And is there any correlation between these?

We are the only resources (mining) company in India. Secondly, we are the only company listed there and listed outside (LSE). And we have been openly championing about our country's natural resources and not depend on imported coal, or iron ore, copper, crude oil.

In the past too, other companies such as Tata, Maruti, Hindalco etc have faced such events. Unfortunately, misinformation spread by vested interests gets taken on the face value by the public at large, leading to such incidents. But it becomes dangerous when anti-social elements masquerade as activists.

You have mentioned foreign hands behind the protests. Who are you referring to? Can you name them?

We will leave it to the government authorities to conduct a detailed investigation into the forces behind the protests.

Do you plan to restart the plant at all now? Or, is there a plan to shift this plant elsewhere?

The need of the hour is the restore peace to the city of Thoothukudi and show our solidarity with the families that lost their loved ones in the violence. The company will decide on the future course of action after looking at all available options.

The second plant is also under scanner with allegations of non-compliance. Will you consider shifting the second plant to another location?

The company will decide on the future course of action after looking at all available options.

Most political parties have jumped into the fray. And all of them seem to be opposing the plant. How are you planning to handle this?

My request is to keep business away from politics. All over the world, successful economies don't mix politics with business. Having said that, it is very important for the government to get to the bottom of this episode.

The protests had been brewing for some time. Did you anticipate it would become violent and lead to a closure?

It is unfortunate what happened about 5 km away from our plants. When we had the information that something like this was being planned for the 22nd, we reached out to the court and the court was quick to inform the local administration for it to be prepared which led to the imposition of section 144 in the area.

Have you had any dialogue with protesters before and after the incident? What have been their primary demands?

Even before these protests started, the company followed the practice to invite people from various walks of life to visit our factory and witness first hand, the best practices adopted and in the same lines we had even extended the invitation to several activists and leaders but none of them visited. We are open to meeting and clarifying the doubts of the people of Thoothukudi about any aspect of the company's operations.

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