May 115 min
Updated: May 12
Many in India became aware of copper as a news item after the 2018 government and court mediated closure of the Sterlite plant in Tuticorin, following many years of agitation against alleged neglect of environmental and pollution control norms by Sterlite.
Violations of industrial safety and attendant dangers to public health are as old as the chemical industry. There has always been an uncertain relationship between governments, the judicial systems, and industry on this count, seeking as it were a golden mean between quality of life and quantity of profits. Answers have been found, to a greater or lesser extent across the globe, and we do not have large-scale calamities any more, in the manner of say Chernobyl, Love Canal, or Bhopal.
What makes Sterlite different? Why was it closed? Why, two years later, is it still shut? Who is ultimately responsible for the pollution, the closure and our subsequent inability to reopen the plant? Is the same entity responsible for all these events or are they different ones? There are just too many questions.
Let’s go to chemistry first because the geopolitics here arises primarily from this science. Copper, the first of the 90 or so naturally occurring elements to have been isolated in a pure state by humankind (nearly 5,000 years ago), is like all the other elements, unique. Elements cannot be created unlike their compounds, which can be made by chemists. What there is of an element in the earth’s crust and atmosphere is all we have. Sometimes we have plenty, like oxygen, silicon, and iron. Others, like copper, are not so commonly occurring, and even what we have is rather unequally distributed. Copper ore, for the metal does not mostly occur in the free state in nature, is found mainly in Chile, Peru, the US, Indonesia, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the Philippines. An odd assortment of countries, wouldn’t you say?
And here’s the rub. Copper is critically required by all countries because its unique combination of high electrical conductivity, high thermal conductivity, high ductility and moderate cost (silver’s properties are just as good but its prohibitive cost precludes its common use) makes it a unique metal for the drawing out of wires and making electrodes that are essential in large-scale transmission of electricity. To put it simply, modern life as we know it would not be possible without a ready supply of copper worldwide.
India is not blessed with a great amount of copper pyrites, the main ore of copper. The little that we have (~2% of the world’s supply) is located in a belt that bisects the country from Rajasthan to Jharkhand and it is of poor quality. Sterlite, like other copper refiners, was importing ore concentrate from some of the above mentioned countries and recovering the pure metal in Tuticorin, accounting for a whopping 35% of the country’s requirements. India was also exporting a substantial amount of copper to China largely as cathodes for batteries. So you see, China too was dependent on imports of the pure metal while India was actually exporting it.
To deprive a country of a strategic metal is an ancient form of warfare. Empires have been created or have collapsed fighting with each other for gold and silver. As science grew, and with it the attendant technology, our tastes for other elements picked up. Platinum, palladium, chromium, neodymium, uranium, and indium, for example, are all required for some essential purpose today. Countries that have these elements can exert an inordinate influence on those that don’t because elements cannot be made, but are extracted from their ores. For instance, the apartheid regime in South Africa lasted as long as it did because of its near stranglehold on chromium, an essential constituent of stainless steel in the US market. China today can adjust the world prices of neodymium, a metal it has in large amounts and no one else has, because this metal is an essential constituent of high flux permanent magnets --- and so on.
In this context, one has to search for just which country would stand to gain the most if India were deprived of its copper requirements. Consider the scenario: there are several copper refineries in India. Some of these use native ore. Others import the ore. Sterlite, in the latter category, was unique in that it is situated in a densely populated area, with a long history of neglect and violation of pollution control measures (one of the effluents in the calcination and smelting of pyrites is the highly toxic sulfur dioxide) and if this were not enough, it is located in a state with a highly volatile political atmosphere, vitiated by Dravidian jingoism, Brahmin hatred, Christian evangelism, and Islamic fundamentalism, all leading to a highly volatile activism that can be virtually switched on and off at will by higher powers. Added to this is the presence of a strongly left wing inclined, even regionalistic press and media in the state. The primary instigator country also surely knew that labour and industrial matters fall in the concurrent list in India and that it would be very easy to manipulate centrifugal forces in a state that has had a running feud with the government in Delhi for well nigh 50 years. Picking Sterlite, located in Tamil Nadu, as a target, was therefore nothing short of an act of geostrategic genius.
I have stated the facts. Saying anything more would lead one into the domain of speculation and assumption. I am asking you to join the dots. It only remains to be said that India has become a net importer of copper from a respectable exporter in less than two years (we have lost around ₹40,000 crore in the process), that Pakistan's exports of copper to China have gone up 400% in this similar time (they have large pyrites deposits in Balochistan), and that China’s copper requirements continue to be met. Look for a large, powerful country with lots of money to bribe politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists or religious groups anywhere in the world, and more or less at will, and you will find your answer.
Whichever this country is, make no mistake that its leaders are taking sound advice from its scientists on what the difference is between a chemical element and its compounds, while our science advisers in India seem not to have been so able to do. For in the end, the laws of chemistry are higher than those of politics, economics or religion.
(Gautam Desiraju is a structural chemist and honorary faculty member at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He also has the distinction of being one of the most cited Indian scientists).