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TN needs Sterlite more than TN needs it

One of the issues raised against the Sterlite unit in Thoothukudi relates to the large population in the proximity of the plant affected by the pollution of air and land. There is the complaint about the location of the plant in a thickly populated town. This must be viewed in the context of the evolution of an industrial unit and more importantly, of the city.

The Chembur experience

I cite the instance of Chembur in east Mumbai. Right up to the 1950s Chembur was a distant suburb of Mumbai, not much populated and lacking in civic facilities. It was considered an ideal location for setting up several industrial units.

These provided employment to large numbers. In quick time the population started settling around these. With the growth of the economy, the capacities of these industrial units also expanded massively. Again along with these, the community also grew exponentially. The scope for expansion of industrial units got saturated and was located in new locations.

There were also the issues of pollution and complaints by population in the neighbourhood. Industrial units took care to install progressively pollution control systems. In RCF, for instance, some signboards display the level of chemical substances in the air that have to be well within limits prescribed. The technology was effectively used by the industrial units for the disposal of chemical wastes and to keep the pollution under control.

One could experience a similar evolution in other industrial towns. Look at the experience of Thoothukudi.

When Sterlite was pampered

The first Jayalalithaa government during 1991-96 took the opportunity to grasp the fruits of liberalisation. In quick succession,TN attracted Sterlite Industries, Thapar DuPont and Ford Motors as prestigious substantial investments in the coastal towns of Thoothukudi and Chennai. A lot of incentives were provided, like handsome concessions on sales tax, large land parcels at modest prices and assured supply of power.

Thoothukudi with its port facility and TNEB’s power station and sparse population was an attractive location. The initial capacity of Sterlite was also modest at 40,000 tonnes per annum and the green belt stipulated could be adhered to. For the limited population at that time supply of water was adequate. The town that lacked employment opportunities also welcomed this sophisticated facility. Over the next two decades, Thoothukudi witnessed rapid growth. The port recorded massive expansion. Exports of marine products, mineral sands and allied financial and other services registered enormous growth. Sterlite itself expanded the capacity for copper smelting to 400,000 tonnes with a corresponding expansion of phosphoric and sulphuric acid plants.

When population thickened

Understandably, the population around the plant thickened. Demand for infrastructure facilities like water expanded manifold. The state government, the municipal administration and the company should all take the share for the failure to cope with the significant unmet demand for civic amenities. They also failed massively to address the grievances of the population around.

It should, therefore, be surprising that with the facilities already choked, the government should have allowed the doubling of capacity to 800,000 tonnes. It should have of course be economical and advantageous for the company to opt for a brownfield expansion, ie., creating new facilities alongside the existing ones. But sadly, little thought seems to have been invested in weighing the impact of such massive development on an already overstressed town.

In Chembur, new expansions were taken out. RCF, for instance, set up large sprawling facilities at Thal across the shores in an entirely new location. BPCL and HPCL set up new refineries in new locations. The government has the responsibility in analysing the impact of the expansion of units in existing areas. Unfortunately, this was not done in clearing the expansion of Sterlite.

Chembur – from a distant suburb to the heart of Mumbai

In 1955 the American company Stanvac (latter ESSO) and the British company Burmah Shell were permitted to set up oil refineries in Chembur, Mumbai. These, after nationalisation in the 1970s became Hindustan Petroleum (HPCL) and Bharat Petroleum (BPCL) respectively. The proximity to the harbour was an important factor in selecting the location for facilitating import of crude.

A shipping terminal at Butcher Island, off the Trombay coast, was set up to accept large tankers from where the crude was pumped through submarine pipelines to the two refineries. Subsequently, a public sector company, Hindustan Fertilizers & Chemicals (HCFL), was set up nearby which later evolved as Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertilizers Ltd (RCF) to make use of naphtha and fuel oil from the refineries. Much before this Dr. Homi Bhabha had selected the sprawling idyllic site sandwiched between the Trombay Hills and the Trombay Bay hidden from the city for locating the Atomic Research Centre (BARC).

HCFL at that time imported an old plant from the USA for production of sulphuric acid for fertilizer production. In those days India was a dumping ground for polluting, phased-out plants from the USA which did not meet their safety standards. The SOx, NOx, H2S and even ammonia let out from the RCF plants became unbearably high, and soon the Chembur area was suffocating the neighbourhood. A Society for Clean Environment, (SOCLEEN), was formed by some of the environmental scientists of the atomic energy establishment which had a progressive ecological programme for its own, thanks to stalwarts like Dr A K Ganguly.

SOCLEEN set up its own environmental analysis programme and associated research activities to highlight environmental pollution issues. They even put up banners at the entry of the suburban Chembur: “you are entering the gas chamber of Mumbai.” These had a salutary effect: factory management took steps to control pollution and subsequently shut down the old plants and installed new ones that were environment-friendly. In fact, RCF is the only unit of the once iconic Fertilizer Corporation of India that was profitable that survived. The management put up a real-time analysis of pollutants in the environment at their factory gate.
It is worthwhile noting how the government went in for measures to control pollution rather than directing plant to close down as in the Sterlite case. This is also an example of how enlightened citizen groups carrying out pollution awareness programmes can force industrial plants to take remedial actions rather than taking recourse to disruptive agitations. – Dr. M R Iyer

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