Sterlite Copper, the Vedanta Group’s copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi, was sealed on Monday evening, shortly after the Tamil Nadu Environment and Forests Department issued a two-page Government Order for its “permanent” closure. Vedanta termed the decision “unfortunate.”
The decision to close down the factory that directly employed around 3,500 workers, including 2,500 on contract (since put on notice), comes against the backdrop of the killing of 13 persons in police firing at an anti-Sterlite rally a week ago.
The order said, “Under Sections 18(1)(b) of the Water Act 1974, in the larger public interest, the government endorse the closure direction of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and also direct the TNPCB to seal the unit and close the plant permanently.”
It pointed out that the TNPCB did not renew the Consent to Operate to Vedanta Ltd.’s copper smelter plant in its order dated April 9, 2018.
“Subsequently, on May 23, the TNPCB has also issued directions for closure and disconnection of power supply to the unit. The power supply has been disconnected on May 24,” it said.
Sterlite Copper’s CEO P. Ramnath had recently claimed that the company was responsible for generating indirect employment for an estimated 30,000-40,000 people.
“The Amma [former Chief Minister 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 journalists in the evening after chairing a meeting of his party legislators at the AIADMK headquarters in Chennai.
Mr. Palaniswami, who earlier met a cross-section of traders, fishermen and the church for over an hour, along with Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and other Ministers, told the media that the representatives of Thoothukudi conveyed to him that “the closure of the plant is the demand of all [in the area].”
To a question on the proceedings in the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court on the issue, he pointed out that there was no stay order. The case was under way. “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,” he said.
The Chief Minister added that Mr. Panneerselvam and other Ministers went to Thoothukudi in the morning, met the affected people and assured them that proper medical treatment would continue to be provided. “If desired, they can be shifted to hospitals of their choice,” he said.
Asked what the State government would do if Sterlite legally challenged the closure, Mr. Palaniswami replied that he did not want to answer any hypothetical question.
In Thoothukudi, Collector Sandeep Nanduri, who supervised the sealing operations, said, “The plant is permanently sealed. There is no more confusion. I request the people of Thoothukudi to cooperate with the district administration to bring normalcy back in the district.”
In a statement, the Vedanta Group said, “Closure of Sterlite Copper plant is an unfortunate development, especially since we have operated the plant for over 22 years in a most transparent and sustainable way, contributing to the Tuticorin (Thoothukudi) and State’s socio-economic development. We will study the order and decide on the future course of action.”
Opposition party leaders, while welcoming the government’s decision, questioned its timing. DMK working president M.K. Stalin called it an “eyewash”, while many hailed it as a victory for the collective power of the people.
In a stock exchange announcement, the Sterlite confirmed the receipt of order from the Government of Tamil Nadu directing the TNPCB to seal its ‘Copper Smelter Plant 1 at Thoothukudi District, Tamil Nadu' and to close the said plant permanently.