Over the last five years, the Thoothukudi district administration has failed to not only address the angst of residents over pollution by Sterlite copper but also to utilise funds to improve the environment in the vicinity of the plant, government documents received under RTI show. Of the Rs 100 crore deposited by Sterlite industries as penalty for violating pollution control and environment norms in 2013, only Rs 7 crore has been spent.
The Supreme Court had directed that the compensation that was being levied for polluting the environment and operating the plant without consent, should be deposited by the Thoothukudi Collector in a fixed deposit. The court reportedly ordered that “The interest should be spent for improving the environment, including water and soil, of the vicinity of the plant after consultation with TNPCB and approval of the Secretary, Environment, Government of Tamil Nadu.”
Today this money has grown to whopping Rs 141 crores but the district administration has sanctioned only 33 projects, of which 14 have been completed. It was deposited in July 2013 in a State bank of India branch.
Funds not channelled correctly
According to an RTI reply from the Thoothukudi administration, the funds were not even channelled for the cause determined by the Apex court. Instead, they were utilised for check dams, protective walls, ground water recharging units, rainwater harvesting structures, construction of wards at government-run hospitals in the region, ultrasound scan machines and even for the construction of parks, one of them at the Collectorate campus.
"Projects undertaken using the penalty amount appear to have been projected as part of Sterlite Copper's CSR. For instance, Rs. 30 lakhs was sanctioned, and Rs. 27 lakh spent on 'construction and formation of park at Collectorate Campus, Thoothukudi.' Until protestors defaced it in March 2018, the park sported several sign-boards advertising Sterlite Copper," says Nityanand Jayaraman, the environmental activist who filed the RTI.
But the district administration claims there has been no correspondence with Vedanta Resources after they received the compensation.
The only project that seems to fall in line with the SC's directives is the planting of 2000 trees in 30 villages around Sterlite. The project has been completed, as per the RTI and cost Rs 20 lakh. The most expensive project undertaken by the administration was for the construction of 'ground water recharges sheft in the bed of uppar odai' which cost Rs 92 lakh.
"What we see here is complete apathy on the part of the part of the district administration," says Nityanand. "District Collectors only work on crisis mode and when things are threatening to get out control. Ideally, a public committee should have collaborated with the collector in order to decide how to spend the money in a way that will benefit the environment and community," he adds.
The activist points out that funds could have been utilised to carry out studies that are necessary to understand how the copper smelter was affecting the environment. "If health and environmental monitoring was done, it would have been useful in building evidence against the unit and would have generated the necessary data to keep track of various parameters."
Thoothukudi district collector Sandeep Nanduri was unavailable for comment.