MAC: Mines and Communities

Occupational Injuries and Deaths at Sterlite.

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

Occupational Injuries and Deaths at Sterlite.

Sterlite denies that many of these incidents were caused by the company. Speaking about the July 1997 incident where women workers at a neighboring cut-flowers factory, charged that they had been exposed to toxic gas from the plant, Agarwal told the media that "The incident has nothing do with our factory and there was no leakage of any kind of gas from our plant."

Date– Description of Injury/Fatality

1997– Killed: Explosion at the plant. 2 persons reduced to charred bone; 2 workers maimed. July
1997– Injured: Toxic gas leak from Sterlite. 120 people exposed. 45 (42 women and 3 men)

August 1997– Exposed: Workers at nearby Tamilnadu Electricity Board substation suffer headache, coughing and choking due to smoke emanating from Sterlite.

August 1997– Killed: Two contract workers killed, one injured.

April 1998– Killed: Two employees killed, four injured.

March 1999– Injured: Sterlite Gas Leak – 9 employees of “All India Radio” hospitalised

September 2000– Injured: Two workers sustain acid burn injuries.

November 2000– Sterlite pumps toxic effluents into village pond. Villagers detain factory employees.

July 2001– Killed: Worker trapped under Gypsum load.

August 2003– Killed: Lorry cleaner killed during loading

August 2003– Killed: Lorry cleaner killed while loading Rock Phosphate

December 2003– Killed: Welder succumbs to a fall

2003– Killed: Electrician killed. Another worker injured.

May 2004– Killed: Worker dies after fall from lorry

September 2004– Killed: Contract worker run over by crane

Source: Sterlite workers and ex-workers, 2005.
Cited in Business India, March 13, 2005

Then, weeks after the facility re-opened, nine employees of a neighboring radio station who were hospitalised, blamed a gas leak at the factory.

By September 2004, when a Monitoring Committee (SCMC) empowered by the Supreme Court visited Sterlite, the plant was churning out four times the allowed levels of pollutants, according to the Vedanta’s Annual Report 2004.

In the face of this record, some environmental and human rights activists are confident that local resistance will gain strength. “The [anti-Sterlite] campaign is bound to pick up because of [Agarwal’s] arrogant expansionism,” says T.S.S. Mani of Human Rights Tamilnadu Initiative, a Chennai-based voluntary organisation.

Other activists remain sceptical.

“I don’t know how we are going to succeed given the level of [government] collusion,” Fatima Babu says. “Even now, they are going ahead with illegal expansions and business as usual.”

That cynicism is fueled by the fact that all the new construction in Tuticorin has occurred without the environmental clearances legally required by both the central and state governments, and that other illegal construction at the Orissa site continues.

At the time of the Supreme Court monitoring committee’s 2004 visit to Tuticorin, Sterlite had nearly completed construction of a 300,000 ton-per-year copper smelter, a 127,000 ton copper refinery, a power plant, and several other units. None had government approval.

Nonetheless, barely a day after the committee’s visit, the central government gave post-facto clearance to the already constructed plants – despite the fact that Sterlite had never gotten the pollution board’s consent to built them. The board approval came in April 2005 when the factory was ready for production. According to a July 2005 Supreme Court Committee report the TNPCB
claimed that it consented after the Central Ministry ordering it to do so.

Senior TNPCB officials declined to comment. “I’ll get into trouble if I speak to you. Please don’t ask me anything,” said R. Ramachandran, member secretary (acting) of the board. A faxed letter seeking clarification on the reasons for TNPCB’s failure to force compliance, elicited a cryptic response from Surjeet K. Choudhary, secretary to the Tamilnadu government and temporary board chairman. “Board is taking necessary action,” he wrote.

Phone calls and emails to Secretary to the Union Environment Ministry Prodipto Ghosh and to public relations chief Maria Doss went unanswered.

Deforestation and Evictions

The controversies have apparently not affected the company’s bottom line. The man behind Vedanta/Sterlite, Anil Agarwal, reported that attributable profits for year ending in March 2005 were up 66 percent to $120 million". This has been an exceptional period for metal prices driven by strong demand from China," as well as for "increased foreign investment and the potential [for India] to become a major regional manufacturing hub," he said in Vedanta’s annual report. Agarwal acknowledged that the company had benefited from the political climate. The Congress Party, elected in May 2004, "has maintained a policy of growth and liberalization" favorable to his company, he reported.

That growth is in no small part a consequence of Agarwal’s ability to work the system. India’s commerce minister P. Chidambaram was on the Vedanta board until his party assumed power in New Delhi last year. His replacement, 70-year old Naresh Chandra, is a former cabinet secretary and senior advisor to the prime minister of India from 1992 to 1995, and Indian ambassador to the US from 1996 to 2001.

A cartoon in Business India depicts the Vedanta/Sterlite founder squeezing himself through an hour-glass saying “In India, you must have patience. Everything will come through.” Many concede that the London-based billionaire’s understanding of India’s decision-makers is frighteningly accurate.

Ritwick Dutta, a Supreme Court lawyer who has brought Vedanta’s violations in Orissa to court, says that the company adopts a time-tested strategy: “They don’t go for small violations. They go in for massive violations, bring it to light and then get post-facto clearance after payment of an insignificant fine. In Orissa, they chopped down trees on 58 hectares, and gladly paid the fine of Rs. 30,000 or so ($650). Now, they have gone ahead and clear-felled another 1,000 hectares of forests in Chattisgarh.”

On September 21, another Supreme Court monitoring committee, this time the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) on Forests, recommended revoking Vedanta Alumina Ltd’s environmental clearance for a 1 million ton aluminium refinery in Lanjigarh, Orissa. The CEC found
that Vedanta had falsified information, destroyed 58 hectares of forest land and begun construction without the required clearances.

“The refinery’s viability is dependent on mining the nearby Niyamagiri hills which are in a reserve forest. But the company failed to disclose this while seeking permission for the refinery,” says Dutta. “Their strategy is to quickly invest money and build the refinery and then plead with the authorities that their investment – nearly Rs. 3500 crores ($780 million) would be rendered unviable if the mine is not cleared.” The Lanjigarh plant is nearing completion, while the mining proposal has yet to secure approval.

Company head Agarwal brushed aside these concerns in his annual report. "There have been some public interest submissions to a Supreme Court of India sub-committee, regarding the environmental clearances for the bauxite mining and these are currently being addressed.

Some activists suspect that the ways the company is addressing the problem is not to ameliorate damage, but to work its special relationship with government officials. According to Dutta and the CEC, the situation at Orissa throws the integrity of the authorities in question.

Indeed, the CEC hints at complicity between the company, the Union Ministry of Environment and the Orissa government. In its report, the committee writes: “The casual approach, the lackadaisical manner and the haste with which the entire issue of forests and environmental clearance for the alumina refinery project has been dealt with smacks of undue favour/leniency and does not inspire confidence with regard to the willingness and resolve of both the State Government and the MoEF to deal with such matters keeping in view the ultimate goal of national and public interest.”

Besides the clear cutting, there is the issue of “demolition of tribal villages on the land that Sterlite wanted to occupy,” says Dutta. In 2004, two tribal villages were razed, and the residents were forcibly relocated to resettlement camps. Since then, two more villages have been evicted with help from the state police and company-sponsored goons, according to tribal rights activist Prafulla Samantara.

As of November 10, armed police stationed around Lanjigarh were preventing tribals and activists from congregating at the plant gate to protest the Vedanta project’s illegal construction, said Samantara. Police have detained several tribal leaders and their supporters, he said, and a cordon around the village was keeping him from protest site.

The non-profit People’s Union of Civil Liberties investigated the human rights violations reported by
Lanjigarh residents and concluded: “It is hard to believe that [the area] is a part of the same India that the elite continuously brags about having catapulted into twenty-first century. ...The people are terrorised, and believe (perhaps rightly) that their attackers enjoy the support of the police. This apprehension of the people is reinforced by the fact that the attackers admit in public that they have attacked the agitating villages.”

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based journalist investigating and reporting on corporations and their impact on environment and human rights.

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