India’s eyes are currently on Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. Thirteen people have been killed as the police opened fire on the residents protesting again the expansion of the copper plant owned and operated by Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper.
While this has never been a part of media or public discourse before, residents have been protesting against Sterlite’s copper plant ever since it was notified to be built in 1993.
The plant is believed to have caused a lot of environmental damage and has put the health of the residents of Tuticorin in jeopardy. According to a National Environmental Engineering Research Institute report in 2005, high concentrations of cadmium, chlorides, arsenic, copper, lead and fluorides were found in a groundwater sample from the neighbourhood of the plant.
While all attention is currently centred around Tuticorin, this is not the only region in India where Vedanta is embroiled in controversies. In fact, Vedanta-related controversies extend beyond India’s boundaries.
Only around 8,000 people from tribal communities live in the Niyamgiri Hills. Only once in India’s history have we seen what can be described as an ‘environment referendum’. The choice of whether bauxite mining would be allowed in the Niyamgiri hills was decided by 12 gram sabhas chosen by the Odisha government, which were going to be directly affected by Vedanta. In 2013, the gram sabhas unanimously voted to not allow Vedanta to go ahead with their bauxite mining plans in the Niyamgiri hills. This referendum was possible only after a directive from the Supreme Court.
Interestingly, the Odisha government has been very unhappy with the democratic verdict of the gram sabhas. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court by the Odisha government in 2016, with the intent of making the decision of the gram sabha referendum null and void. However, the petition was quashed by the Supreme Court.
The 1,980-MW Talwandi Sabo Thermal Power Plant, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Vedanta, was fined ₹5 lakh for pollution by the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB). The plant was using more than 34% ash content, resulting in fly ash pollution. It is illegal for coal-run thermal power plants located further than 1,000 kms from the mines to use more than 34% ash content in the coal that is being used.
The fly ash pollution also resulted in a loss for the cotton farmers in Mansa, Punjab where the plant is located. The PPCB had also asked the Talwandi Sabo Thermal Power Plant to provide compensation to the cotton farmers who had suffered loss.
The power plant became operational from August 2016 onwards. A major fire had also broken out in April 2017 in its coal handling unit, for which the plant was shut down temporarily.
Sesa Goa (former name of Vedanta Limited) had set up a metallurgical coke plant in 2006 in a village in Navelim, Goa. In August 2012, the residents of the village in which it had been set up observed a day-long bandh to protest against the plant’s expansion plans. Their grievance was that the plant was responsible for polluting the water sources in the village.
They also claimed that the Ministry of Environment Forest and the State Pollution Control Board went ahead with the expansion of the plant without consulting the villagers.
Over 1,500 Zambians are taking legal action against Vedanta and its Zambian subsidiary for destroying their lives and livelihood due to water pollution caused by their copper mine. They are suing them in English courts.
In April 2015, a judgement was upheld by the Supreme Court of Zambia which had come to the conclusion that Vedanta’s subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines was indeed responsible for the pollution.
Vedanta has always been a controversial corporation which has been in news for causing damage to the environment and negatively impacting the lives and livelihoods which are in the vicinity of its various projects.
One must remember that before Vedanta chose to set up its copper plant in Tamil Nadu, the states of Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra had rejected its proposal. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, the corporation’s ideas to set up a plant was rejected by these states because they were aware that the plant could create environmental damage. The CSE also claims that it was able to get a clearance in Tuticorin because it ‘misrepresented facts’. “Firstly, it said that the plant is not located within 25 km of ecologically sensitive area, which was found to be wrong as the plant is located near Munnar Marine National Park. In addition, the company submitted a faulty rapid EIA report without conducting any public hearing,” CSE said.
Evidently, it’s not the first time Vedanta has caused trouble for the people and the environment. It’s just that, this time, the negative impact is there for all of us to see – with the television cameras capturing the deaths of 13 protesters.