Mumbai: Dismissing claims by protesters at Thoothukudi, Sterlite Copper chief executive P. Ramnath said the villagers are parroting allegations made by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In an interview over phone, Ramnath said the firm’s immediate aim was to get its “consent to operate" from the Tamil Nadu government.
What were the reasons for setting up the Sterlite Copper smelter plant at Thoothukudi?
We chose Thoothukudi because of the proximity to the port and because Tamil Nadu has been industry-friendly. We wanted to set up a smelter unit near the port as we import a lot of copper concentrate from South America, Australia and Indonesia. We produce 36% of India’s annual demand of 650,000-675,000 tonnes of copper.
The plant has been operational for over two decades. What set off the recent protests? Locals say they raised an alarm because the plant expanded to within 100-200 metres of residential areas.
This land has been with us for several years. We had received environmental clearance in 2009. We would have started (expansion) long back, but we did not get the consent. In 2016, we got the consent and we went ahead with it. We have been in touch with locals and we have been providing them with facilities they require such as water and infrastructure.
So the company and locals had a history of cordial relations?
Yes. We were quite surprised (by the protests). The locals had issues with labour camps; we said we would shift them. For some reason, people from outside came in and hijacked the issues. We had already been speaking to village leaders and the panchayat.
The other issue concerning residents is the higher rate of cancer incidence in the area...
These are canards floated by NGOs. There is no basis for the kind of myth floating around. In data for cancer incidence, Thoothukudi is not even in the top six of 32 districts in Tamil Nadu. Among men, Thoothukudi is at No 15 (in rates of cancer). This is based on data from the state health department.
Some locals said the plant was producing far above the stated capacity?
This is all hearsay. I do not know on what basis they are saying this. They have no data, they are saying all this based on what is being taught to them; but I do not know by whom. This is completely baseless and they are talking nonsense.
You have been ordered to shut operations temporarily. What is the way forward?
We will explore all options, legal or otherwise.
Last October, Zambian villagers had won the right to sue Vedanta in a UK court over pollution at their villages because of a copper mine. Given this legal precedence, does it worry you that protestors in Thoothukudi may do something similar?
We will have to see how this pans out, and we will take appropriate action at the time. There is no point speculating on what might happen and then commenting on that. Let us wait and see.
When do you expect to start operations?
We have a court case on 6 June at the appellate tribunal in Chennai. Our consent to operate was not renewed by the government, so we approached the appellate tribunal. Based on the outcome, we will have to see how things turn out. We have 3,500 direct employees in Thoothukudi. Why should we abandon our own plant.