In a surprise development, Vedanta group has put Sterlite Copper’s Thoothukudi plant, which has been shut since 2018 over pollution concerns, up for sale.
The copper plant had provided direct and indirect employment to over 20,000 people, supported over 400 downstream industries with a combined workforce of almost 100,000, and indirectly ensured employment to more than 12,000 people in the logistics industry.
The VOC port in Thoothukudi, which was at one point among the fastest growing in India, has seen a visible decrease in business since the copper plant was shut down, as Sterlite’s operations drew in at least 10-12 vessels every month.
Here is a timeline leading up to Vedanta’s decision to sell the plant:
August 1, 1994: The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) issues a No Objection Certificate allowing Sterlite to begin the process of obtaining approvals for a 60,000-tonne-per annum capacity copper smelter.
October 1994: Tamil Nadu’s then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa lays the foundation stone for Sterlite’s Rs 1,300 crore copper smelter project in Thoothukudi.
January 1997: Sterlite Copper commences operations as a copper smelter at SIPCOT Industrial Complex in Thoothukudi.
November 23, 1998: The plant is ordered shut by the Madras High Court for the first time for environmental violations. It reopened after a few days.
March 2013: The Tamil Nadu government shuts Sterlite Copper after a gas leak was reported at the plant.
April 2013: Supreme Court fines Sterlite Copper Rs 100 crore for flouting environmental norms, but refuses to shut down the plant.
January 2014: Sterlite Industries awaits TNPCB approval for a Rs. 2,500-crore expansion plan that would double copper production at the Thoothukudi plant to 8 lakh tonnes.
March 2018: Plant shut for maintenance pending a renewal of licence.
Protests erupt over pollution, allegedly caused by the Vedanta group copper plant.
May 22, 2018: Police firing on a gathering of over 20,000 protesters near the Thoothukudi Collectorate kills 13 people.
May 28, 2018: The Tami Nadu government directs the TNPCB to seal Copper Smelter Plant 1.
August 17, 2018: The Madras High Court rejects a plea by Sterlite Copper seeking to reopen the Thoothukudi plant.
December 15, 2018: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) sets aside the Tamil Nadu Government’s order to shut down the plant, stating that the closure was unsustainable and unjustified.
February 18, 2019: The Supreme Court sets aside the NGT order on grounds of maintainability. Sterlite Copper is permitted to approach the Madras High Court with a writ petition challenging the impugned orders and seeking interim relief.
August 18, 2020: The Madras High Court dismisses the plea challenging the closure of Sterlite Copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi and refuses to allow its reopening.
December 2, 2020: The Supreme Court rejects a proposal by Vedanta to operate the closed plant for 30 days under the supervision of an expert committee appointed by the court.
March 2021: With global copper prices on the rise, Vedanta plans to set up a coastal copper smelter plant in India with an investment of Rs 10,000 crore.
April 2021: Amid a shortage of medical oxygen during the Covid pandemic, the Supreme Court allows Vedanta to produce oxygen at the Thoothukudi plant.
May 2021: Sterlite Copper commences production of ‘medical grade oxygen’ at the Thoothukudi facility.
July 2021: Sterlite Copper says it will stop producing liquid medical oxygen at the plant on July 31, as ordered by the Supreme Court.
August 2021: Madras High Court issues notice to Vedanta Ltd for remediation of contaminated sites inside the copper smelting facility in Thoothukudi.
November 2021: Vedanta moves the Supreme Court seeking access to the plant, citing the need for repairs and maintenance owing to floods in the region.
January 22, 2021: The Supreme Court refuses to recall its order rejecting Vedanta’s interim plea to reopen the Sterlite Copper smelting plant.
January 2022: Soon after speculation about a foreign power fuelling the Foxconn protests at Sriperumbudur started, Sterlite Copper said “external forces” may have been active in Thoothukudi, prior to the firing that killed 13 and left 102 injured in May 2018. The Foxconn protests erupted after 159 employees were hospitalised after suffering from food poisoning at a dormitory.
May 2022: Anti-Sterlite People’s Movement and family members of the police firing victims demand a court-monitored reinvestigation of the case.June 20, 2022: Sterlite Copper invites expression of interest for the Thoothukudi plant.