Fully confident that Sterlite Copper would get a favourable judgment from the Supreme court and re-open its Tuticorin copper smelter plant, Nallakandy Panangadan Gopalakrishnan bought six acres of land for expanding the capacity of his own company, Amritha Chemicals (India) Pvt Ltd. 

To manufacture its main product, fluorosilicic acid, used in water fluoridation and in the manufacture of special types of glass, Amritha Chemicals needs sulphuric acid, something that Sterlite Copper used to produce. (Sulphuric acid is a by-product of the copper refining process.) 

Not only was Amritha Chemicals the country’s leading supplier of fluorosilicic acid, it was also expanding its business abroad, having secured the REACH approval (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals) from the EU. The company had export orders worth ₹15 crore on hand and needed to expand its plant in Tuticorin to execute the orders. 

But the Supreme Court judgment, which upheld Sterlite’s closure, put the kibosh on Gopalakrishnan’s plans. And now, Amritha Chemicals is shifting lock, stock and barrel to Odisha — where the government is “very pro-active, very industry-friendly“, says Gopalakrishnan.  

Amritha Chemicals used to employ about 100 people, “90 of them were from SC/ST communities,” Gopalakrishnan told businessline. The septuagenarian MSME industrialist rues that he could have employed more, had the expansion happened in Tamil Nadu. 

Ramifications of Sterlite’s closure

Amritha Chemicals’ re-location to another State is illustrative of the far and deep ramifications of Sterlite Copper’s closure. While it is well-known that India has turned a net importer of copper after the plant closed — imports of the metals and articles made of it went up to ₹11,600 crore in 2022-23, from ₹1,900 crore in 2017-18. But less known are the effects of the stoppage of production of two other products that Sterlite Copper used to make — sulphuric acid and phosphoric acid. 

Coimbatore Pioneer Fertilizer Ltd (CPFL), a manufacturer of Single Super Phosphate (SSP), a fertilizer, used to buy sulphuric acid from Sterlite for ₹3,000 a tonne; after Sterlite’s closure, CPFL is paying over three times as much for the acid, an official of the company told businessline. Likewise, Shree Annam Chemicals used to buy phosphoric acid from Sterlite, to produce Dicalcium phosphate (DCP), which goes into the production of poultry and cattle feed.

After Sterlite was shut down, Shree Annam had to contend with a 60 per cent increase in the prices of phosphoric acid, says Ramaiyer Harihara Gopal, Executive Director of the company. Business was affected. “We used to be the sole suppliers to Karnataka Milk Federation,” says Gopal, “but not anymore.” Shree Chemicals is “just managing” by buying phosphoric acid from abroad or Gujarat. “We have killed the golden goose,” Gopal told businessline, referring to the loss of production of copper, sulphuric acid and phosphoric acid due to Sterlite’s closure.  

More affected are the contractors and port workers. S Thiagarajan, former President of Contractors Association, couldn’t contain himself as he spoke to businessline about the woes of contractors after Sterlite shut down. Thiagarajan is convinced that behind all the troubles of Sterlite is “veli naattu sadi” (foreign conspiracy). He said that Sterlite engaged about 40 contractors for various jobs, such as loading, unloading, trucking, etc. These contractors employed about 5,000 people. About half of the workers have gone elsewhere for work, while the remaining half “are struggling”, trying to find work in agricultural fields and salterns, competing with those already working there, says Thiagarajan.  

“The price of Diammonium Phosphate (DAP — a fertilizer produced by SPIC) has gone up from ₹300 a tonne to ₹1,000, after Sterlite closed,” Thiagarajan said.  

At the Tuticorin port, business is dull. Earlier, at least two ships used to berth to supply to Sterlite stuff like copper ore and rock phosphate. Each ship carried 40,000 tonnes of material; to move 80,000 tonnes of material per month, some 300-350 trucks used to be pressed into service. Now it is all gone. “I myself had six trucks; I have sold them,” he says. Truck owners like Thiagarajan were luckier than owners of vehicles that were meant to ferry acid — about 60 acid tankers used to be engaged by Sterlite. All of them are out of business and are not even able to sell their vehicles.