Sterlite Copper CEO says plant closure has stopped India’s march to self-sufficiency

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Pankaj Kumar, Chief Executive Officer, Sterlite Copper

The closure of Sterlite Copper’s Tuticorin plant, which once accounted for nearly 40% of India’s copper output, had been forced by vested interests that did not want the country to become self-sufficient in the critical industrial metal, the company’s chief executive officer said in an interview.

The plant was shut down in 2018 following a police firing that killed 13 people who were protesting against the proposed expansion of a copper smelter over pollution concerns. The plant’s capacity of 400,000-450,000 tons would have doubled following the expansion. 

If the second plant was up and running, it would have meant that the Indian company would have been dictating the terms at which the copper concentrate is bought across the world, Pankaj Kumar told Indoasiancommodities.com.

“We would have set the benchmark, which today the Chinese companies and other Chinese smelters are doing today,” he said.

International copper prices surged past $9,000/ton in February following a pick up in demand from China as the world’s second-largest economy has rebounded from  a demand contraction due to the pandemic. 

Demand for electric vehicles as well as renewable energy — where copper is a critical ingredient — is also expected to drive up demand for the red metal.

Copper prices are likely to remain elevated due to on-going supply issues with copper concentrate and strong demand, particularly from China, says a report by rating agency CARE.

Domestic copper production fell by 24.4% to around 231,000 tons during Apr-Dec FY21 compared with the same period a year. Overall domestic refined copper production fell  by 39.5% year-on-year in  the first quarter of FY21, impacted by the lockdown which brought business activities to a halt, CARE Ratings said.

It added that the Indian copper industry has been operating at almost half of its capacity since the last two financial years due to closure of Vedanta Ltd’s 400,000 tons copper smelter at Tuticorin.

In a recent newspaper advertisement, industry associations said that the closure of Sterlite Copper’s Tuticorin plant had benefited Pakistan as its copper exports had substituted India’s and grown by five times to China.   

Protests had erupted over the plant by the local community over environmental concerns as well as other issues.

“We believe that there are foreign players in this whole thing to make sure that we don’t become self-sufficient in key resources in the country. There were Chinese,  there were people from the UK etc who jumped into the fray, pumping money and there were a lot of NGOs as well and that became a very big protest sometime in 2018,” Kumar added.

Web of litigation

Since then, police firing on protestors has taken on a political colour more than a pollution concern, he added.

“There’s nothing to substantiate that we are polluting,” Kumar added. 

“Even if there are cases of non-compliance, you can’t order a shutdown. I mean for a theft you can’t order the same punishment as murder. Give me a chance to remedy it. And if the remedy is not possible, then shut me down,” he added.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board had shut down the Sterlite Plant and subsequently the National Green Tribunal had lifted the suspension. However, the Supreme Court had said the Tribunal could not override a state entity’s order and had redirected the matter to the High Court, which subsequently closed the plant again.

The issue is now pending before the Supreme Court, where the company’s interim plea was opposed by the Tamil Nadu government, which said that the plant had been “polluting consistently.”

“Now, people do think that this is a pollution issue, but I just want to clarify there’s no pollution issue,” he said.  

Sterlite has argued before the court that the plant’s closure had affected employment of 4,000 people directly and 100,000 indirectly who were employed in downstream industries or related sectors like logistics.

Kumar highlighted that the closure of the plant also meant that as much as Rs 600 crores, which were being pumped into the local economy in the form of buying of materials or availing of services, had now stopped.

Biman Mukherji is a columnist and consulting editor at Indoasiancommodities.com. He has worked for international news organisations such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal as well as for newspapers like The Times of India. He can be reached at biman.mukherji@indoasiancommodities.in

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