The entire nation has been shocked by the events that have unfolded in Thoothukudi where at least 13 people have lost their lives, as the police opened fire on people protesting against the Sterlite copper smelter plant on Tuesday. However, recent reports reveal intriguing and complex avenues both the UPA and NDA governments have used to be complicit in this affair.
Role of the UPA Government
In 2006, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) rules were notified, which exempted projects in industrial parks from requiring public hearings. The EIA notification stated: “All Category ‘A’ and Category B1 projects or activities shall undertake Public Consultation, except [...] all projects or activities located within industrial estates or parks.”
The State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) industrial park, where the Sterlite project is located, however, did not have environmental clearance as it came up before the EIA notification in 2006.
An Economic Times report reveals how this was taken advantage of. Copper smelter plants, which is what the Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi is, come under Category A. But, the rules have no mention of any scenario where a project is coming up in an industrial park, which does not have environmental clearance. The report quotes officials as saying that this was a grey area that may have helped Sterlite in obtaining clearance while avoiding the public consultation process.
In 2008, the Environment Ministry’s expert appraisal committee approved the project and even allowed the company to use data collected two years ago, for their EIA. “After detailed deliberations, the committee agreed for the exemption for public hearing… due to location of the project in notified SIPCOT (site),” the report quotes the minutes of a committee meeting on October 20, 2008 as saying. This approval, however, lapsed five years later, in 2013, as the project was unable to take off, as it was being challenged in the court over the environment clearance process.
It was only on May 16, 2014, the day of the election results that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government insisted that projects such as the Sterlite would first be required by the law to go through public consultations.
Change in regulations brought by the NDA Government
Business Standard reported on how Vedanta was able to go ahead with construction of its plant by taking advantage of a change in regulations brought about by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The company was legally able to obtain environmental clearance to double the capacity of its smelter without consulting the public. This was enabled by an interpretation made by the NDA government, in December 2014, of the then existing green regulations. This helped various plants, including Sterlite’s plant in Thoothukudi, to be built without consulting the public in the area affected by the project.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT), in 2016, found the orders and interpretation of the NDA government, which favoured many companies, including Vedanta, to be illegal. The Business Standard report also reveals that the NGT had to go to the extent of threatening with bailable orders against environment ministry officials in the case, as they had been reluctant in divulging information.
The NGT quashed the NDA government’s 2014 orders and on its instructions, the ministry had to pass fresh orders, which made it mandatory for projects in industrial parks without environmental clearance to conduct public hearings. However, Vedanta had, by then, already secured an extension of the green clearance required for expansion of the Thoothukudi plant without needing a public hearing.
On the basis of this 2016 ruling of the NGT and other facts that were brought to light through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by R. Fathima of Thoothukudi, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on Wednesday ordered Vedanta to stop construction of Unit II of the Sterlite plant until the environmental clearance is obtained after conducting a public hearing.
Committee formed on paper
A report by The Indian Express says that a sub-committee, recommended by an expert panel of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), which was to assess the environmental clearance (EC) given to Sterlite Copper plant of Vedanta Group in 2009, is yet to be formed.
The report goes on to cite ministry sources as saying that a planned visit had also been delayed owing to the protests. An expert appraisal committee (EAC) member is quoted as saying, “The sub-committee was to be made up of members of the main committee but so far, it has not been constituted… nor made a visit to the site. [...] The EAC meeting had decided that a sub-committee will be set up and that it will visit the site but then there was news of agitations in the area.”
The report further quotes officials saying that this sub-committee was to visit the site and also have public consultations because of the complaints about environmental issues related to the project.
What is happening now?
The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edapadi K. Palaniswamy said on Thrusday, “This government is Amma’s [Jayalalithaa’s] government that respects the sentiments of the people. As far as the Sterlite issue is concerned, this Amma’s government is taking steps legally to close down the unit.”
Earlier on the same day, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) had ordered the closure of the Sterlite Copper unit with immediate effect and had also disconnected power supply to the plant.
The TNPCB said, in its order, that during inspections by its officials on May 18 and 19, it found that “the unit was carrying out activities to resume its production operations” though permission was not granted.
At the same time, in an interview to The Hindu, P Ramnath, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Sterlite Copper, said “We have not even thought about it. Twenty years ago, we came down to Thoothukudi and set up the plant for a reason. That reason continues. For the second plant also we had an option of moving to other States, but we decided to be here. That decision continues and that does not change as of now.”
In the same interview he also said, “Our plant has been shut down for maintenance. In the last five to six years, there has been absolutely no incident. Suddenly, these issues are cropping up from nowhere. So, that’s why we feel that some kind of an instigation has happened. Normally, the public won’t react to this extent. So we really feel there is some external catalyst, which is adding fuel and ensuring that the fire keeps burning.”
What has been revealed in the Vedanta-Sterlite affair is that successive governments – both the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA – have been consistently acting in the interests of the company as opposed to that of the people. It also of interest to note that the way that these rules had been interpreted may have also acted in the interest of various other companies.