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Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan: How Sterlite Copper plant closure was India’s loss and Pakistan’s gain making us dependent on import for copper

While Indians pledge to liberate the country from the crutches of dependency, it is pertinent to note that there have been some instances in the nation's recent history that have served to severely dampen its aspiration of becoming a self-reliant country.

While addressing the nation on May 12, 2020, PM Narendra Modi announced an “Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan” worth Rs 20 lakh crores($265 billion) to tide over the economic downturn induced by the coronavirus crisis and emphasised on the need for India to become “self-reliant” as the pandemic sweeps across the world, paralysing economies in its wake.

In his clarion call to build a self-reliant India, PM Modi impressed upon the need to support and promote local products and brands so that the nation builds a robust supply chain that can ride out global storms like coronavirus relatively unscathed. PM Modi’s apparent reference was to the limitations of the globalisation amidst a rampaging pandemic that had forced the countries to shut down their economic engines and thereby adversely affecting the global supply chain. PM Modi promptly highlighted how India’s ingenuity and self-reliance in quickly churning out the PPE kits and N95 masks in the midst of an epidemic helped her in escaping the fate suffered by other coronavirus-ravaged countries dependent on global supplies for procuring the necessary protective gears.

With India staggering under the economic shadow of coronavirus, the message quickly resonated with its 1.3 billion population who were forced to shut their economic activities(except for essential items) and compelled to remain confined to their houses as the pandemic continued its ominous march. As PM Modi yesterday hinted that there might finally be light at the end of the tunnel as the country girds to tread the treacherous and uncharted path of reviving its economy, the gravity of PM Modi’s message was not lost on the citizens and the virtuous ideals of “Atmanirbhar” or “self-reliance” soon became the catchphrase for Indians determined to awaken the economy from its torpor and catapult it on the path to autarky.

While Indians pledge to liberate the country from the crutches of dependency, it is pertinent to note that there have been some instances in the nation’s recent history that have served to severely dampen its aspiration of becoming a self-reliant country. Most notably, the debacle of Sterlite Copper has hustled the country from once being an exporter of copper to a net importer, only within a matter of a few months.

Sterlite Copper closure: India suffering from “self-inflicted” harm by shunning “self-reliance”

The Vedanta owned Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi was shut down by the Tamil Nadu in May 2018 following the violent protests staged by the residents, who alleged that the plant posed serious health hazards. The closure of the Sterlite Copper plant had such widespread ramifications on the country’s copper trade that from being one of the top five exporters of the copper cathodes in 2017-2018, India became a net importer beginning 2018-2019.

Sterlite Copper accounted for roughly 38 per cent of the country’s copper needs as the smelter produced nearly 4 lakh tonnes every year. However, after the Tamil Nadu government’s diktat of shutting down of the plant, not only did the diminished copper production dramatically reduced the country’s export but it also forced the country to import the metal from overseas.

As per the 2017-2018 figures, India exported approximately 378 kilotonnes of copper cathodes— obtained after the copper ore is smelted and refined. However, after the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi was shuttered, India’s exports nosedived to 48 kilotonnes in 2018-19, a precipitous fall of almost 87 per cent.

In addition, India’s copper imports also rose by a strikingly large amount. In 2017-2018, India had imported a paltry 36 tonnes of copper cathodes. But in a span of just a few months, India’s imports zoomed to 84 kilotonnes in 2018-2019, a stunning rise of 233 per cent.

Perhaps, the most consequential statistics related to the plummeting exports of copper from India came from its north-east neighbour- China. From exporting copper cathodes worth $1.5 billion in 2017-2018, India managed to export only $226 million worth of copper cathodes to China in 2018-2019, a massive drop of 85 per cent.

India’s exports of copper cathodes in FY 2019-2020 have been predictably abysmal. Now, a report published by China Economic Net claims that the financial year 2019-2020 saw a 400 per cent increase in Pakistan’s copper exports to China compared to what they were 3 years back. Pakistan’s export of copper to China stands at $550 million against the $106 million export three years ago. Effectively, losses borne by India from the shutting down of the Sterlite Copper plant have now transformed into gains earned by its nemesis-Pakistan.

According to the Pakistani daily-The International News, China is eyeing to take the exports to $10 billion-mark once the dispute surrounding the “Reko Diq project”, one of the largest copper reserves of Pakistan, settles down in the International Court of Justice.

The export of copper and the prospect of large reserves of copper waiting to be tapped could revitalise China’s interest in the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor(CPEC), a project touted as “harbinger of economic progress and regional peace” but in reality is a nasty scheme to strip Pakistan of its natural resources while simultaneously holding India’s feet to the fire to accept China’s regional hegemony.

By shutting down the Sterlite Copper plant, India had effectively empowered two of her arch-enemies whose ill-disposition towards India is evident and unmistakable. In the matter regarding the closure of Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi, India unapologetically shunned its self-reliance and inadvertently caused self-inflicted injuries to its national security and its economic interests.

“Atmanirbhar” is the need of the hour

The post-coronavirus world order may present us with its own set of problems, ranging from national security which still exists today to the novel issues such as fragile global supply chain. Countries will continue to have friendly relations with other countries bounded by shared interests and mutual goals. But it also remains a fact that enmities between certain nations will continue to sustain, if not aggravate, as the nations come to terms with the post-coronavirus world order.

With no prospect of vaccine for coronavirus in the foreseeable future, nations who risk relaxing the lockdown restrictions to shake up their economies from their slumber may stand the risk of being afflicted with a possible second wave of coronavirus infection. This could force them to reinstate the lockdown restrictions which could disrupt the global supply chain, leaving countries dependent on exports in a deeply vulnerable condition.

In such a scenario, for India to realise its goal of autarky while ensuring its national security interests are not jeopardised and it does not remain inordinately dependent on the capricious global supply chain, it becomes all the more important that PM Modi’s exhortation to build an “atmanirbhar” India or a ‘self-reliant” country is followed in letter and spirit. Perhaps, we can start it by restarting the now-defunct Sterlite Copper plant and reconquer our position of being one of the top exporters of copper cathodes.

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