According to the Environmental Justice Atlas, India has more environmental conflicts than any other country in the world. Most of these conflicts are rooted in the cozy relationship between business and political interests, supported by a compliant administration.
Another significant observation that has marred these conflicts is the continuing nature of violations by the same offenders. This has surfaced the conflicting binary of development, spearheaded by industries that are backed by the government, and environment, by the citizens who are victims of development.
To address the dichotomy between development and environment, India has built a strong legal framework to conserve natural resources, limit the environmental impacts of industrialisation, and offer compensation to people who have borne the brunt of development. However, lawmaking in India is often an opportunity to open up loopholes that enable authorities and businesses to flout norms.
The shutdown of Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, which followed a week after Tamil Nadu police gunned down 13 protesters who had taken to the streets against a proposed expansion of the factory, is yet another case that fuels the development versus environment disputation.
Economists have argued over the economic significance of the plant and the impact of its shutdown not just on the copper industry but also on many manufacturing industries. The shutdown will also affect domestic supply as it produces around 36% of the copper used in India. This could cause a potential spurt in prices and is likely to force India to import more.
Though the recent protest witnessed severe escalations, it is also important to understand what led to the culmination of this escalation. The plant has faced opposition from the residents of Thoothukudi since its inception. In 1992, the plant was initially planned to be constructed in Maharashtra. The project faced local agitations and the government suspended its construction.
In 1994, the rejected project managed to get a foothold in Tamil Nadu. Since then it has been embroiled in a series of allegations of violating environmental norms. These protests and complaints were followed by the company’s justification for its operation and finding a legal way around. The final shutdown came at a cost of the lives of the protestors who were shot down.
The Sterlite Copper case is one of the several cases in Vedanta’s environmental violation portfolio. This case also emphasizes the continuing nature of violations by the same offenders. As of now, Sterlite Copper is fighting a legal battle to reopen the plant.
In December 2018, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to allow the reopening of the plant. This was followed by the Supreme Court’s decision in February 2019 ruling that the NGT did not have the jurisdiction to grant relief to Sterlite Copper and redirected the company to the Madras High Court.
The two dominant political parties in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK and DMK, are against reopening of the plant. Further, with the Lok Sabha elections around the corner, there is an increasing likelihood that the shutdown will continue.
A study of the events that have unfolded right from the time Sterlite Copper got environmental clearance to start operations in Thoothukudi until the recent protests that led to its shut down in May 2018 unearth the loopholes of environmental governance in India and the state-industry nexus.
On a larger background, this case highlights the continuing tension between those who espouse growth forcing its definition of development on the people and those who call for environmental protection. In the absence of a viable regulatory mechanism, such conflicts may become the norm rather than the exception with the cost of development being paid by the lives of the very citizens that it was directed towards.
Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.
Shunmuga Sundaram Yadav has previously worked for an Italian consulting firm promoting Italian businesses in developing countries and assisting them to participate in projects funded by Multilateral Development Banks. He has completed a course in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering and a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Mumbai University.
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The CSR Journal Team