The medical oxygen requirement of India increased 7 times from 700 tonnes per day to 5000 tonnes per day, amid the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic creating a huge disparity in the demand and supply.
Several corporate giants like TATA, Reliance, SAIL, Jindal have started providing medical oxygen by diverting their production.
To bridge this gap, Vedanta-owned Sterlite Copper has offered to restart production at its two oxygen plants in the now shut copper smelter at Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu. Vedanta said that the plant contains two oxygen plants with a combined production capacity of 1,050 tonnes of oxygen daily.
The company has sent two separate letters to the Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister in this regard.
The CEO of Sterlite Copper, Pankaj Kumar, in the letter to the Union Ministry wrote, “We would like to now offer these facilities for your use towards ensuring that there is no lack of this vital commodity in the nation.”
“We would be grateful to be allowed this opportunity to support the nation’s needs. Our staff stands prepared to get these two plants operational in the shortest possible time and begin dispatching oxygen to the critical areas as per your direction,” the letter continued.
The company expressed its desire to “join hands with the commendable efforts of our PM at this critical juncture,” as per the letter.
In another letter directed to CM Palaniswami, the company urged, “One oxygen plant of 500 TPD [tonnes per day] can be operated to meet the critical demand of oxygen in this hour of peril… The Oxygen Plant is presently lying shut owing to the orders passed by the TNPCB and the state government, shutting down the copper smelter unit of the company. This is a humble request to grant us the necessary permission and allow us to run the oxygen plant which will be instrumental in supporting the state governments in these critical times.”
Vedanta has also filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking permission to produce oxygen at the smelter, which was closed in mid-March 2018.
In an interview to Business Today, a Sterlite Copper spokesperson informed, “We have the capacity to produce liquid oxygen also that can be transported in tankers. We have talked to units in Coimbatore who are ready to get us cylinders done in 30 to 45 days.”
Closure of the Sterlite Copper Plant
The Vedanta-owned Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi was shut down by Tamil Nadu in May 2018 following the violent protests staged by the locals and activists, who alleged that the plant posed serious health hazards.
Though the plant later got clearance by the National Green Tribunal, the state government approached the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the National Green Tribunals order. The apex court stayed the order of the NGT and allowed Sterlite Copper to approach the Madras High Court, which upheld the government order.
The case is now in the Supreme Court with Sterlite Copper challenging the Madras High Court verdict. The company’s plea to access the plant for just maintenance purposes has also not been entertained by the court so far.
The closure of the Sterlite Copper plant had such widespread ramifications that it made the country an importer of copper cathodes from being one of the top five exporters.
Shortage of medical oxygen in India
On witnessing an acute shortage of medical oxygen, several companies including Reliance Industries, SAIL, Jindal, Tata Steel and ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel India have already volunteered to supply oxygen from their facilities. The steel ministry informed that 28 oxygen plants located in the steel facility of both public and private sectors are supplying about 1,500 tonnes of medical oxygen every day and additional stock of 30,000 MT, including the safety stock, is being made available for medical use.