The closure of UK-based Vedanta Resources Sterlite Copper plant at Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu has affected domestic production of refined copper, while impacting its imports and exports, the Centre has said in Parliament.
To a Muslim League Lok Sabha member from Kerala P K Kunhalikutty's question last week if India had become a net importer of copper, Minister of Mines Prahlad Joshi, quoting a CARE Ratings September 2019 report, said the drop in domestic production of copper had led to a domino effect, increasing imports and paring exports.
The Thoothukudi Sterlite Copper Plant has an annual capacity of four lakh tonnes of refined copper but it has been closed since May 2018 on orders of the Tamil Nadu government, he said, adding that this had affected domestic production.
In another reply to Rajya Sabha Nationalist Congress Party member Majeed Memon’s query if India had become a net importer of copper for the first time in the last two decades, Joshi said imports more than doubled during 2018-19 fiscal to 92,990 tonnes against 44,245 tonnes the previous year.
In terms of foreign exchange outgo, $605.20 million was spent in the last fiscal against $294.95 million in 2017-18. At the same time, earnings from refined copper exports dropped 87 per cent to $302.27 million from $2,435.57 million during the same period.
In terms of volume, shipments of refined copper from the country slipped to a mere 47,917 tonnes from 3.78 lakh tonnes (lt).
In the first six months of the current fiscal, the imports of refined copper were 1.09 lt valued at $684.02 million, while exports were 18,300 tonnes earning $106.35 million.
To another question from Kunhalikutty on cancer cases in Coimbatore, Kanchipuram and Thoothukudi, Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare Ashwini Kumar Choubey, told the Lok Sabha last week that all the three cities showed an increase in age adjusted incidence rate.
This was according to data from the National Cancer Registry Programme. The minister’s statement calls the bluff of those who had demanded closure of the Thoothukudi Sterlite Copper Plant alleging that cancer cases had increased in the city.
The Thoothukudi Sterlite plant was ordered shut by the Tamil Nadu government on 28 May 2018 after violence broke out during protests demanding the closure of the unit, leading to the death of 13 persons in police firing on 23 May.
For nearly 100 days from February 2018, protests were held in Thoothukudi demanding that the copper plant be closed, alleging that it was causing pollution to the industrial city of Thoothukudi.
Even before the plant was ordered shut, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board withdrew its consent for the operation of the copper plant on charges that the Sterlite plant had caused air and water pollution.
Vedanta appealed to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the closure. The NGT quashed the orders of the state government and TNPCB, terming the closure as against the principles of natural justice.
This was because the copper plant management was not given an opportunity to explain the charges that it caused air and water pollution.
The Supreme Court overruled the tribunal’s verdict. It, however, gave Vedanta the liberty to approach the Madras High Court against the closure.
The case is now pending in the Madras High Court, which has finished the hearing from all the concerned and reserved its judgement. On the other hand, the Central Bureau of Investigation is probing the 22 May 2018 incidents that resulted in police firing.
The closure of the Sterlite plant has resulted in India becoming a net importer of copper. Until its closure, Sterlite contributed to 40 per cent of the total 1,000 kilo tonnes of refined copper production in the country.