On April 10, 2018, Vedanta Ltd wrote to the Bombay Stock Exchange and the National Stock Exchange that its application for renewal of license to operate the Sterlite Copper unit in Thoothukudi had been rejected by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. TNPCB's quiet decision has come after 200,000 Thoothukudi residents hit the streets demanding Sterlite's closure, and kept up a high-decibel campaign targeting the government for credible action.
As far as credible actions go, the TNPCB's refusal to renew Sterlite's license is a cop-out. Even as you read this, nearly 300 workers are at work to set up a new 1200 tonne per day plant in Kumareddiapuram. It was this work on the new facility that triggered a round of protests in July 2017. Why has TNPCB refused to stop work on this openly illegal construction, the clearance for which was obtained on the basis of false information?
This is the fifth time that the company has shut down its operations for a day or longer on account of some environmental incident or court order. Each time, the state or the courts have come to the company’s rescue. The history of Sterlite in Thoothukudi is a story of betrayal of the people of the city at the hands of the TNPCB, governments of India and Tamil Nadu and the Supreme Court.
What is a Consent and what does the refusal to renew it mean?
The Consent to Operate is a mandatory license that any factory ought to obtain under Air and Water Acts. This license authorises the factory to operate in compliance with statutory conditions. Licenses are usually given for a period of a few days to about 3 years, and have to be renewed periodically. The law does not permit unlicensed operation.
If Consent Conditions are not complied with, the factory's license may not be renewed. However, if the factory subsequently repairs the situation, it can once again apply for and obtain the license.
Unless TNPCB's current action is followed up with other credible actions leading to the permanent closure of the existing factory, and the revocation of the illegal license being used to construct a new 1200 tpd factory, it is quite likely that Sterlite will be up and running in a few weeks, if not months, once the existing struggle quietens down.
To understand the basis of this cynicism, one needs to become aware that this is not the first time Sterlite's Consent to Operate has not been renewed. Between 1996 and 2013, Sterlite was unable to renew its license on at least eight occasions.
Though the law prohibits unlicensed operation of factories, TNPCB never troubled Sterlite on this count. In fact, even the Supreme Court did little more than frown irritatedly when confronted with evidence that Sterlite was operating its factory illegally when it approached the apex court for relief from the Madras High Court order shutting it down.
Information obtained through Right to Information, and subsequently reflected in the report submitted by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute to the Supreme Court in May 2011, exposes how Sterlite operated without a valid license for extended periods.
Periods during which Sterlite operated without a Renewed License:
The company has continued to produce copper well beyond permitted quantities without license. In 2004, when it had no license to operate, TNPCB allowed it to not only continue to manufacture without license, but also to set up an entirely new 900 tonnes per day copper smelter complex without obtaining any license. In November 2004, a TNPCB Inspection Committee confirmed the unlicensed production and unauthorised construction of the new factory. But rather than prosecute the company, TNPCB rewarded it with a License to Operate the illegally constructed factory on 19.04.2005.
So if anybody is holding their breath in awe of TNPCB's actions, it is time to exhale. The refusal to renew the license is the easiest and most logical thing to do. Now, it is time for TNPCB and the well-paid bureaucrats in Tamil Nadu government to earn their keep. A diligent and honest appraisal of Sterlite's operations and compliance to environmental and license conditions will reveal the extent of violations and damage already done.
This information should be sufficient to shut down the company's operations forever and let Thoothukudi breathe.
Meanwhile, without wasting more time, TNPCB should immediately halt the ongoing construction at the site of the new 1200 tonne per day copper smelter complex.
Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and social activist and has been involved in the campaign against Vedanta Sterlite's pollution.
Views expressed are the author’s own.