Sterlite shutdown - Myopic decision

The Tamil Nadu Environment & Forests Department’s Government Order for the “permanent” closure of Sterlite Copper, the Vedanta Group’s copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi, is shortsighted and grievous. It doesn’t augur well for industrialization—not only in Tamil Nadu, which is a leading industrial state, but also in the entire country.

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Updated: Jun 29, 2018, 20:01 PM IST

The Tamil Nadu Environment & Forests Department’s Government Order for the “permanent” closure of Sterlite Copper, the Vedanta Group’s copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi, is shortsighted and grievous. It doesn’t augur well for industrialization—not only in Tamil Nadu, which is a leading industrial state, but also in the entire country.

“The Amma [former Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa] government has issued an order to have the Sterlite plant closed down permanently in deference to the sentiments of the people of Thoothukudi,” Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami told the media on Monday in Chennai.

Everything about this statement is wrong. First, no government belongs to a dead person, however important and praiseworthy he or she may have been when alive. Second, while the sentiments of people are important, they should not force a democratically elected regime to take a decision that has wide ramifications.

For statecraft and economic policy should be governed by reason and facts, not sentiments and feelings. But, evidently, the state government believes otherwise. So, the Chief Minister said, “We have taken this decision, as a mark of respecting the feelings of the people. We are doing what, we consider, is good for the people.”

Notwithstanding his claim, the decision is certainly not good for 30,000-50,000 people; well, that is the number of persons who would lose jobs because of the Sterlite plant shutdown. They are also people, after all. But, unfortunately, only protestors, including violent ones, are regarded as people whose feelings have been taken into account by the state government.

The decision to shut down the Sterlite plant is shortsighted, betraying knee-jerk response on the part of the state authorities, intended to divert attention from its own ineptitude that resulted in 13 deaths. The ineptitude is writ large. For instance, how did the protest, which remained peaceful for 99 days, become bloody on the 100th day?

Further, the local police didn’t arrest the protesters even when they threatened to lay a siege at the collectorate. They weren’t arrested or detained though they violated Section 144 that was imposed. When trouble started, water cannons weren’t used. When the cops fired, they took aim, which is against the rules. Worse, they didn’t use pellets or rubber bullets.

Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy told this writer that activists of the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam played the critical role in the violent campaign. While the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister didn’t mention LTTE involvement, he did say on the day of the conflagration that, among other, “anti-social elements were instigating innocent people to pressure the government and give us a bad name.”

So, either there was terrible failure on the part of local intelligence or awful coordination among law-enforcement agencies. At any rate, Sterlite cannot be held culpable for the violence.

Now, the Vedanta company is no shining example of corporate responsibility; its record on the environment front has been patchy at best. A penalty of Rs 100 crore was imposed on it in the past. But for all its irregularities, the copper producer should be penalised as per the procedures laid down by the law and rules enunciated by various authorities. If need be, the company can be closed down and even the officials/promoters concerned be thrown behind bars, but Sterlite—and, for that matter, any other corporation—should not be shut down because a clutch of vociferous radicals want it shut down.

For the repercussions are grievous and far-reaching. The Sterlite plant at Tuticorin produces 40 per cent of copper in India. So, its closure will adversely affect about 800 small and medium units, including those making cables, winding wires, and transformers.

Since the plant exports around 1.6 lakh tonnes copper of its 4-lakh-tonne production, the country will also lose that much foreign exchange.

Against this backdrop, Vedanta Limited’s statement on Monday should not be seen as a loser’s rant: “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 Tuticorin and [the] state’s socio-economic development. We will study the order and decide on the future course of action.”

Whatever course of action Vedanta may choose, Tamil Nadu’s, and India’s, image as an industrializing nation takes a beating. For no government can hope to attract investment if it can’t maintain law and order and then blames private enterprise for its own failure.

(Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a journalist and author. He has spent around 25 years in the media. As a freelance journalist, Kapoor has written for a number of leading publications. He has written four books on Indian politics and its associated institutions.)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)

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