SC rules Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit must stay shut: All you need to know

Setting aside National Green Tribunal’s (NGT’s) order to expedite the reopening of Vedanta Sterlite’s controversial copper smelter in Tamil , the Supreme Court (SC) on Monday dealt a huge blow to its plans to begin operations; it insisted that the protest-hit plant in Thoothukudi remain shut.

The court was hearing Vedanta group’s request for a direction to Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board (TNSPCB) to implement NGT’s green signal for reopening the plant; the Tamil Nadu government shut it on May 28, 2018, over allegations of groundwater pollution amid protests that took a violent turn last year.

The state government had challenged the environmental court’s order. The SC bench, comprising Justices Rohinton Nariman and Navin allowed its appeal only on grounds of maintainability.

The SC on Monday said the green court has no jurisdiction to entertain the case. It, however, awarded Vedanta the liberty to approach the Madras High Court with a writ petition to reopen the plant expeditiously.

How NGT’s involvement made matters worse

After Vedanta moved the NGT against the closure orders, a three-member expert committee, headed by former Chief Justice of Meghalaya High Court Tarun Agarwal, was formed to probe the matter.

In its December order, the NGT chastised the state for closing the plant indefinitely since May 28. It added that as long as the company is willing to abide by TNSPCB norms and also take further precautions, the state cannot shut down plants based on hyper-technicalities, referring to the state pollution regulator citing “irreversible pollution” in its report.

The NGT also asked the TNSPCB to pass a fresh order of renewal of consent and authorisation to handle hazardous substances, subject to appropriate conditions for protection of environment in accordance with the law, within three weeks.

The SC, during a hearing on the challenge appeal last month, had upheld NGT’s nod to reopen the plant and renew state’s consent for . “The directions that have been passed by the National Green Tribunal, by its judgment dated 15.12.2018, will continue to subsist and will be subject to the ultimate outcome of the appeal,” the bench headed by Nariman had ruled on January 9.

The top court had, however, denied Sterlite’s request to resume operations immediately and granted three weeks’ time for it to fulfil all conditions of NGT’s December 15 order. 

NGT vs Madras HC

NGT’s clean chit arrived a few days after the Madurai bench of Madras High Court passed a binding order, directing the TNSPCB to seal and shutter the plant permanently, citing violation of environmental laws.

The court’s verdict to stay the construction and further expansion of Vedanta’s Sterlite plant at the Thoothukudi unit came against the backdrop of continuing protests in Tamil Nadu over pollution concerns.

Appeal for stay order

The Tamil Nadu government then filed a plea before the top court, to set the NGT order aside; it called the order “erroneous” and unmindful of the evidence furnished by the state to show that Vedanta had indeed polluted groundwater in the plant’s vicinity. It also claimed that the tribunal had no jurisdiction in the matter.

Vedanta’s defence

On January 31, the Vedanta group told SC the state was harassing it, and its campaign against the group’s operations was besmirching its image.

Earlier, it had claimed that the report produced before the court citing irreversible environmental damages was based on evidence collected six months into the lockdown. Later, Vedanta had sought restoration of electricity in the plant to comply with the conditions laid down in NGT’s December order.

People vs Vedanta-Sterlite

Vedanta’s plans in the Thoothukudi region have always been met with a steely reserve. Controversies have followed the Sterlite Copper unit, ever since it commenced operation in 1997. Protesting residents have alleged that the copper smelter has caused severe environmental damage to the land’s soil, water, and air. Citing disposal of copper waste and effluents from the operational unit, among other issues, protesters have been demanding its permanent closure.

This is not the first time the plant has faced closure. In 2013, it was shut for two weeks, reported the Economic Times, due to a case involving the NGT.

The revival of the agitation is attributed to the brownfield expansion of the plant, meant to double the smelter’s capacity to 8 lakh tons per year.

The plant was shut down in March as part of a 15-day scheduled maintenance; during this time, the state government rejected Vedanta’s licence to operate the smelter in April on environmental grounds, with the hearing scheduled in June. P Ramnath, CEO of Sterlite Copper, insists that the plant had adhered to all conditions.

What happened on May 22?

As the agitation entered its hundredth day, on May 22 last year, the police opened fire on protesters in Tuticorin, killing at least 13 people and leaving several others injured. Environmentalists and activists are protesting alongside locals to oppose the proposed expansion.

The deaths sparked nationwide outrage and the Opposition and environmental activists alike severely denounced them. Soon after, the TNSPCB disconnected power supply to Sterlite Copper’s smelter because it found out that it was “carrying out activities to resume production”, despite the Board asking it to hold until its licence was renewed, reported ANI.

Justifying attacking the protesters, the police told AFP, “We fired live ammunition in the air to disperse the protesters. But the mob continued to pelt stones and bombs. They were setting fire to vehicles.”

At the time, TN Chief Minister E K Palaniswami had defended the police and said they’d fired in self-defence, even blaming “certain political parties”, “NGOs”, and “anti-social elements” for the violence. The Congress and DMK dove right in to support the protesters, even calling strikes against private profiteering.

Why it should matter to you

The plant in question became a national talking point for its widespread impact on public health and economy in Thoothukudi.

However, the Vedanta case is not a standalone example. Ever since rapid became a priority for whichever party is at the Centre, industries have been allowed to get away with a slap on the wrist or complete impunity, despite exacerbating environmental pollution.

Red tape, inadequate environment laws, bureaucratic oversight, and corruption all contribute to increasing corporate negligence towards the environmental impact of their industrial operations, and this is not restricted to polluting the air or water alone.

Fertile forested lands and riverine banks are often approved for multipurpose projects, industrial expansion, mining activities, without taking the ecological systems they have supported for centuries into account. Each time, there has been an equal and opposite response of outrage from activists and scholars. The Narmada Bachao Andolan is a prime example.

Last year, after hundreds of resolute protesters clashed with the police over the cutting of sal trees in Dhenkanal district for a brewery, the Odisha government stopped the felling of trees and scrapped the project the following day. Not all of them are this successful; water activist G D Agarwal died last year while on a hunger strike to save and clean the Ganga.

In this too, environmental activism turned the spotlight on the issue, with global media condemning the May 22 incident, as well; into the uncalled-for violence is ongoing, while justice for the 13 who lost their lives is still pending. Until then, the SC stay order can only be depicted as something short of a Pyrrhic victory.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

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