By Ajoy K. Das

The closure of Vedanta Ltd.’s copper smelter in the southern state of Tamil Nadu has wiped off about 46% of availability of the base metal in the domestic market, turning India into a net importer of copper after 18 years.

Vedanta Ltd.’s Sterlite Copper Plant located at Tuticorin was closed down by the government of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in May 2018 when six people were killed when the police opened fire on a local population protesting the pollution caused by the smelter.

The Tamil Nadu government ordered a “permanent closure” of the plant in response to the killings and protests over the pollution. Over the past year, there have been several attempts by the Vedanta Group, the principal promoters of Sterlite Copper to reopen the plant, but the process has been in a legal logjam since last year.

According to government data, Indian refined copper production during 2013-2014 and 2017-2018 recorded a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.6%. But following the closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper Plant with a capacity of 400,000 metric tons per year (mt/y) of refined copper and accounting for 40% of domestic supply of the metal, total output of copper in India was down 46% during fiscal year 2018-2019.

The shortage situation was further aggravated by a fall in production from Hindalco Industries and state-run Hindustan Copper Ltd. (HCL) during the year owing to scheduled plant shutdowns. The other two primary domestic copper producers accounted for a combined 800,000 mt of domestic supplies of copper per year.

Government data indicates that India imported about $1.97 billion worth of copper cathodes primarily from Congo, Singapore, Chile, Tanzania and South Africa during fiscal year 2018-2019.

In the first six months of the current fiscal year 2019-2020, the country has already imported 70,000 mt of copper cathodes at an estimated value of $447 million.

In sharp contrast, India has exported 378,000 mt of copper cathodes in 2017-2018 which plunged to a mere 48,000 mt of the estimated value of $300 million in 2018-2019.

During the first six months of the current fiscal year, Indian exports of copper cathodes is estimated at 7,000 mt.