India Has Now Become a Net Importer of Copper. What Comes Next?

Successive Tamil Nadu governments allowed Sterlite to run for over two decades. A sustainable solution for the future of copper production in this country must be found.

India’s refined copper imports more than doubled in 2018-19 to 92,290 tonnes ($605.20 million) from 44,245 tonnes ($294.95 million) in 2017-18. Export of refined copper, on the other hand, has substantially dropped to 47,971 tonnes ($302.27 million) in 2018-19 from 378,555 tonnes ($2,435.57 million) in 2017-18. So much so, the country has now become a net importer of refined copper.

Today, we are a net importer at 44,373 tonnes ($302.93 million) in 2018-19. This is a far cry from the situation in 2017-18 when India was a net exporter of refined copper at 334,310 tonnes ($2,140.62 million). During April-November this financial year, imports and exports stood at 109,324 tonnes ($684.02 million) and 18,300 tonnes ($106.35 million), respectively.

These are the numbers submitted to the Rajya Sabha by the Union Minister of Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal, while fielding an unstarred question on February 7. “The domestic production and exports have declined largely due to the closure, since May 2018, of the copper smelter plant of Vedanta Ltd. at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, which has an annual production capacity of four lakh tonnes,” the minister admitted.

The numbers indeed give a status report on the bleak copper situation. From a net exporter, India has quickly slipped to become a net importer. The story, however, has not been as simple and straightforward as the data indicates. For the uninitiated, the copper import-export story will pass just as one more instance of India’s inability to become self-sufficient.

Also read: Tuticorin Air Quality Improves Noticeably After Sterlite Closure: TNPCB Data

For a discerning watcher of the economy, however, the trade disadvantage situation is plainly the handiwork of a thoughtless political leadership and governance across the spectrum in Tamil Nadu.The Sterlite project has been controversial ever since it was planted in Tutucorin over two decades ago. The project went from state to state before finally finding its home in Tamil Nadu.

One can rightly question how the project managed to gain acceptance in Tamil Nadu when several others shunned it.  The fact is that successive political parties in the state allowed it to run for over two decades. Both state and central agencies played ball together in facilitating the progress of the project. Ultimately though, the numerous environment and pollution issues surrounding the plant, which always cropped up on and off over the years, could not be ignored. Sterlite was thus closed.

That things took an ugly turn in the absence of a strong leadership –  local police mowed down 13 protestors with sniper fire in May 2018 – is definitely not lost on the long-time watchers of the  project

It must also be said that the whole imbroglio, even as it currently awaits a ruling from the Madras high court, has also caused immense damage to the national economy not just in terms of its impact on precious foreign exchange but also by putting to peril several downstream units.

Among the most used industrial metal, copper comes third after steel and aluminium in terms of quantities consumed. The country has limited copper ore reserves which constitute around 2% of the world copper reserves. And, the mining production, too, is just 0.2% of the global output.

According to a report by CARE, the consumption of refined copper (including secondary consumption) has grown at a compounded annual growth rate of 4.2% during FY15-19. At the moment, there are only three major players who dominate the primary copper industry – Hindustan Copper Limited (HCL) in Public Sector, Hindalco Limited and Vedanta Industries Limited in private sector. According to a CARE report, the domestic production of refined copper had grown at a CAGR of 9.6% during FY14-18. Production, however, fell by 46.1% during FY19 due to the permanent closure of Sterlite factory in May 2018. The Tuticorin smelter accounts for 40% of the country’s copper smelting capacity.

Also read: Sterlite Protest: Speculation Rife That Police Firing Was Pre-Planned

“Now with the closure of the Tuticorin smelter, the drop in domestic production has led to the domino effect of increasing the country’s imports and decreasing its exports. India has become a net importer of refined copper after 18 years,” the CARE report said. Copper has a wider application in electrical and electronic industries, and touches the lives of very many across multiple trade and industry verticals.

Inaugurating the radial tyre factory of CEAT near Chennai recently, TN chief minister E Palaniswami, claimed that the state was fostering a friendly ecosystem to encourage business to set up production units and create job opportunities. He also went on to claim that Tamil Nadu had emerged as a leading destination for foreign investment in the entire Asian region. It is fine to roll out the red carpet to new industries. But the Sterlite imbroglio will still be at the back of their minds when foreign investors look at Tamil Nadu.

There are many questions to be asked of regulatory organisations and political parties. Could the environmental issues have not been detected and sorted out years before an extreme position had to be taken? Who is to blame? Caught in an intractable predicament of their own making, political parties often look up to courts to come to their rescue. Sterlite is a classic case in point.

The Sterlite episode must end, one way or the other, without any further delay. It has extracted an enormous cost for the economy and also stakeholders of big and small kinds. A sustainable solution for the future of copper production in this country must be found.

K.T. Jagannathan is a senior business journalist.

Note: This story has been updated to remove the term ‘fringe elements’ in the context of the Sterlite project closure.