Controversy-hit Sterlite Copper, whose Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu plant has remained shut for over five years now, has begun to sell the accumulated gypsum inside its plant facility, according to top executives at the company.
This follows the decision of the Supreme Court in May last year to allow Sterlite Copper, a unit of Vedanta group, to do upkeep and maintenance activities at the plant.
Sterlite Copper has already started hiring local contractors and commenced the upkeep work in coordination with the local management committee formed by the district administration, the executives said on the condition of anonymity. Sterlite Copper has started breaking down the piled-up gypsum at the plant premises using heavy machinery and transporting it out to be sold to interested buyers.
Nearly 100 people and over 30 trucks are reportedly engaged in transporting gypsum out of the plant every day, the people quoted earlier said. Along with gypsum, copper slag is also a by-product that contributes as raw material to a wide spectrum of industries.
Over 15,200 metric tonnes of gypsum have been sold by Sterlite Copper between June 26 and July 14, the executives said. Cement companies such as ACC Ltd., Bharathi Cements Ltd., India Cements Ltd., Ramco Cements Ltd., Ultratech Cements Ltd. and Zuari Cements Ltd. have bought varied quantities of gypsum from Sterlite Copper.
Sterlite Copper has 1.5 lakh metric tonnes of gypsum at its closed factory in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu. The primary application of gypsum is in cement manufacturing, where it acts as a setting regulator making the cement gain strength. It also mitigates the risk of flash setting and has other features that help make high quality cement.
Gypsum is also used in boards and plaster, whose fire-resistant and sound-proofing properties make them popular choices for interior finishes. Using gypsum as a substitute for the traditional materials has been shown to reduce impact on the environment.
The significance of gypsum extends to agriculture by enhancing soil structure, water infiltration and nutrient retention. The calcium and sulfur content in gypsum contribute to soil fertility, promoting healthy crop growth and minimizing the need for chemical fertilizers. Copper slag and gypsum, industrial by-products of copper plants, serve as vital components in diverse industries, driving sustainable development and resource conservation.
Since the Sterlite plant has remained shut for the last five years, it has resulted in a huge opportunity cost for many industries that lost ready access to these industrial by-products from the plant.
Even as the final decision on the Sterlite Copper plant is awaited from the Supreme Court, the Sterlite Copper management has embarked on a skill development initiative for young men and women around the region. As part of this initiative, it is planning to collaborate with a Coimbatore-based leading institution to impart skills training to aspiring candidates.
The Vedanta Group outfit has announced that it would, in tandem with the Coimbatore institution, offer skill development training in assorted jobs such as electricians, fitters, instrument technicians, gas cutter, and fabrication fitter. It has solicited expression of interest from people in the age group of 18 to 35. They would be given skill development training for 15-45 days. Sterlite Copper said it would bear the entire cost of training. It has also indicated that successful candidates will be provided priority job placement in its service partner companies.
Sterlite has remained shut since May 2018 when the administration ordered the closure of the plant in the wake of a police firing on protestors opposing the expansion of the plant that killed 13 people. The Sterlite imbroglio has become a hot political subject in Tamil Nadu, and the issue has since escalated into a big legal wrangle. At the moment, the country’s top court is seized of the matter.
According to an estimate by CUTS International that was released in December 2022, the total loss to the Indian economy due to the shutdown has been over Rs 14,500 crore or approximately $2 billion. This represents the losses to all stakeholders including the government, the state, the ports, and the investors. In percentage terms, the cumulative loss for the entire period of plant closure of nearly four years is approximately 0.72% of the State Gross Domestic Product of Tamil Nadu, according to CUTS International.
From a net exporter of copper, India has become a copper-importing nation after the closure of the Sterlite plant. With the emphasis on green vehicles, the need for self-sufficiency in copper has become all the more now.