ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Travancore Titanium

Pursuing a Quixotic Project

A multi-crore effluent treatment plant being set up at Travancore Titanium, one of the most successful public sector undertakings in Kerala, may well push the company into the red. Workers are demanding a more cost-effective project, while the local population appears to be unconcerned with the financial impact of such a plant on the company.

The Travancore Titanium Products (TTP), a prestigious public sector undertaking of Kerala, is in the thick of a crisis, which, if not tackled prudently, may eventually lead to its permanent closure. Even as the impact of globalisation and economic liberalisation has been felt most ominously in the context of TTP’s survival, the present crisis, caused by a long-drawn out question of pollution, tends to assume manifold dimensions. Admittedly, the effluent treatment facility (ETF) project proposed by the TTP raises more questions about the factory’s survival than addressing the basic issues of pollution. Many even suspect a behind-the-scene move to ruin the very future of the firm, which has already set the pace of rolling out a red carpet to private firms and multinational companies. The events that led to TTP’s lay off on November 14, 2000 started when the local people organised under the banner of the Coastal Uplift Association (CUA) and led by the parish priests of the churches on the coastal areas destroyed the effluent carrying pipes of the factory and closed the trenches using sand bags and concrete mixture on October 28. However, consequent upon the intervention of the Kerala High Court and the Lok Ayukta court, the factory was reopened on December 3. Yet, the basic questions addressed by the CUA and the responses of the TTP management pertaining to pollution abatement remain. Meanwhile a section of workers in the TTP, sensing the dangers of the proposed ETF project and the intricacies of the efforts to implement it, decided to take up the matter before the Lok Ayukta court pointing out the economic unviability of the project, on the one hand, and the enormous consequences of the ET plant for the environment, on the other.

TTP is one of the successful public sector undertakings of Kerala, which has a five decade-long history. During the last five years the TTP made good headway by increasing production of Anatase grade pigment (TiO2) from 14,027 MTs in 1995-96 to 15,241 MTs in 1999-2000, an all time record in the history of the company. The sales turnover Rs 108,96 crore during 1999-2000 is the highest recorded in the TTP. Still the company is confronted with the task of sustaining the pressures of the new import policy. It is said that more than 25 per cent of the actual requirements of the pigment in the Indian market is imported from countries like China (that too at lower prices than that of TiO2 produced in the TTP). The multi-crore ETF project is being implemented against the backdrop of this crisis. Employees of the factory fear that the day is not far off when the TTP will have to face the fate of FACT, another prestigious public sector firm in Kerala, which is incurring heavy losses since the installation of the ammonia plant in the factory. However, they are also well aware that the pollution problem of the TTP is not so insignificant as to ignore its impact. What they demand is a cost-effective and more environment-friendly pollution abatement measures that take care of both the existence of the factory and the sustenance of the ecosystem.

Even though pollution has long been a controversial issue in the capital, no serious study has been conducted so far to ascertain the actual impact of the problem. The company discharges into the adjoining sea approximately 5,000 cubic metric of effluents containing 116 tonnes of waste sulphuric acid, 94 tonnes of ferrous sulphate and 12 to 14 tonnes of titania and suspended solids per day. The effluents are currently diluted to 2 per cent acidity by TTP before discharging into the sea. This has predictably generated protests and agitations by local people. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) has been insisting on adequate measures for containing this.

Marine Survey

The TTP had commissioned the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) to conduct a detailed marine survey around the effluent discharge point and submit its recommendation. The report submitted in 1980 recommended the disposal of the diluted effluent through a submarine pipleline, extending to 750 m offshore, at a depth of 18 m for the quick neutralisation of its acidity and toxicity. However, this plan did not come into being due to local resistance and government’s inaction. In 1987 the TTP had given contract for laying the pipeline and pipes worth Rs 44.5 lakh were purchased. After a decade or so the government appointed a committee under the chairmanship of A D Damodaran to study the pollution problems of TTP and advise the government on the matter. The committee reviewed the steps taken by TTP to control air pollution. The installation of a 300 tpd sulphuric acid plant in 1997 brought in positive results in that sulphur dioxide emission came down well below the permitted limits. It, however, recommended immediate implementation of the phase-1 action plan proposed by the TTP, which included, first and foremost, laying of the submarine pipe for disposal of the diluted effluents and later to dispose of the neutralised liquid effluent.

The committee further noted that with the implementation of the first phase, the cost of production of the pigment on per tonne basis would increase by Rs 5,840. It recommended two steps here to take care of the additional burden on the company – waiving of the service charges (of Rs 5,000 per MT) presently levied by the government, and abolition of double taxation, enabling the TTP to sell its product direct instead of through the government-owned trading company KSIPTC. The latter was seen as particularly relevant in the context of liberalised economic conditions when the import duty of the TiO2 was reduced from 85 per cent in 1991-92 to 40 per cent in 1997. Even as the recommendations of the A D Damodaran commitee remained on paper, the TTP proceeded to implement the ETF project. Meanwhile, the KSPCB served notice to the TTP for non-fulfilment of promises made regarding effluent treatment, pollution load reduction and submarine discharge. Against this background and perhpas due to the internal pressures also, the TTP made hectic moves to implement the ETF project.

The discrepancies in the project profile of the ETF plant (dated September 23, 2000) and the detailed project report (DPR) prepared by the FEDO three months later, along with the inadequate explanation given by the TTP, strengthened the suspicion of the workers that TTP was playing into the hands of vested interests who wanted to make quick fortunes. The struggling people of the locality raised the issue of local reservation for employment more forcefully than ever before in this context of high-tension bargain.

When the KSPCB insisted on installing pollution abatement measures, the company was forced to initiate steps towards the ETF project which sought to set up three plants for (a) copperas (FeSO4) recovery, (b) acid recovery and (c) neutralisation.

Questions have, however, been raised with respect to the economic viability of the copperas recovery plant. A survey conducted by OGR-MARG indicated that there is no demand-supply gap for copperas in the internal market and the supply is in excess of demand in the south. The projected quantity of copperas, if implemented, is 200 tonnes per day, i e, for production of 15,000 MTs, about 60,000 MTs of ferrous sulphate will be generated. It is claimed in the DPR that this will be sold in the open market at a price of Rs 300 per MT. But who are the potential buyers, particularly when there is no demand-supply gap? The storage capacity of TTP godown is just sufficient for a few days of production. If TTP cannot find markets for copperas, more than 60,000 MTs of copperas produced in one year should be dumped in the open yard. This will certainly create a much greater pollution hazard in the area.

Already, the Travancore Sulphate (TSL), a private firm located near the TTP is utilising the 50 tonnes of waste acid to produce 15 tonnes of copperas, and the remaining 35 tonnes of waste are dumped in the compound, causing greater harm by polluting the adjacent wells. The situation will be almost the same with respect to 50 tonnes of gypsum proposed to be recovered everyday. Apparently there is hardly any chance of selling gypsum in the open market and, inevitably, 15,000 tonnes of this polluting material have to be dumped somewhere in the area. There is already considerable resistance from the local people to depositing gypsum in the five acres of land acquired for this purpose. Similarly, it is not clear what TTP will do with the recovered sulphuric acid, the concentration of which will be 80 per cent. Everyone knows that this acid cannot be sold in the open market due to its low concentration. If the TTP itself utilises this, it will certainly affect the quality of the titanium pigment. Many wondered why the estimated cost of the ETF project escalated suddenly in three months’ time. According to the project profile prepared by the TTP on September 23 the cost would be Rs 62.5 crore. But the DPR submitted by the FEDO in December last calculated the cost to the tune of Rs 108.5 crore. Moreover the estimated cost of expansion/capacity utilisation was shown as Rs 135 crore. Furthermore, the TTP will have to set apart Rs 35 crore annually by way of recurring expenditure. Then the question is can TTP afford to sustain itself while going ahead with this Rs 240 crore project? Even if the recommendations of Damodaran committee are implemented regarding the abolition of double taxation and waving of service charges, the company will not be in a position to survive in the era of import liberalisation and unfavourable market conditions.

People’s Agitation

Even as such questions loomed large, the CUA went ahead with the agitation, linking pollution with employment and disrupted the functioning of the factory. Perhaps the background of the present agitation was set by TTP itself when news circulated about fresh appointments to be made before the forthcoming assembly elections and that the ETF project itself would generate employment for many. The Kerala High Court in its judgment on December 1 last pointed out that even though the CUA highlighted the pollution, the real interest was to see that an undertaking was obtained as regards the employment of persons who were nominated by the CUA. In fact, the local reservation issue had developed way back in the 1960s. The government appointed a commission in 1973 to study and propose measures for dealing with this. The M K Joseph commission recommended 25 per cent reservation for the professionally affected families living on the coastal belt for the unskilled jobs in the TTP. Later on 5 per cent additional reservation was given to the people living in the sub locality due to air pollution. The CUA, however, argued that local reservation set apart for the fishermen community has been appropriated by other undeserving people who had migrated to the area over the years. The demand even assumed a communal angle, according to some factory officials.

However, many felt that the CUA agitation was a betrayal of its own stance. In January 1995 the TTP management, CUA, and the priests of the local churches thrashed out an agreement whereupon the TTP would give Rs 1 crore towards welfare measures of the coastal people. It was conditional in that the CUA would cooperate with the laying of pipes in the sea to a distance of 750 m from the seashore and at a depth of 60 ft. The government of Kerala increased this amount to Rs 2 crore recently and the amount has already been handed over to the district collector by TTP for welfare measures of the local people. The question motivated the CUA to take a different position now.

The NIO, in its report after four years of study, pointed out that the dilution of the effluent at least by 1,000 times is safe for all marine species. It was further stated that this could be achieved by discharging the effluent at the bottom of the sea and away from the seashore. Scientists say that the acid effluent would get neutralised in the sea water, which is alkaline. The problem is that there is very little awareness among the local population is that on the scientific aspect of this problem and the TTP management itself made no conscious effort to generate public opinion along these lines. Consequently, the pollution question has been pending indefinitely, assuming unfortunate twists and turns.

Certainly, the pollution from TTP cannot be compared with the genocidal dimensions of the Grasim pollution in and around Mavoor, which has caused havoc for over three decades, or the intensity of the same in the Aluva-Eloor industrial belt. The advantage of TTP is that it is not situated in a high-density population area as in the case of Mavoor. TTP can also take enormous advantage of the sea access without damaging the marine species. The possibilities of this should be explored in association with institutions like NIO and CSIR. And the most urgent task before TTP management and the government is laying the submarine pipeline, correctly taking the local people into confidence, instead of pursuing a quixotic project with chips of no value either for the environment or for the people.

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