The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the National Green Tribunal’s nod to reopen Vedanta’s Sterlite copper plant in Tamil Nadu, against the appeal put forward by the state government. A bench headed by Justice R.F. Nariman refused to stay NGT’s December 15-order to allow Sterlite to resume operations in its Thoothukudi plant.
“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 ruled.
The apex court, however, denied Sterlite’s request to resume operations immediately and granted three weeks’ time for Sterlite to fulfil all the conditions imposed by the December 15-order of NGT.
Appeal for stay order
The Tamil Nadu government had filed a plea before the top court, to set the NGT order aside, calling it “erroneous” and unmindful of the evidence furnished by the state government to show that Vedanta had polluted the ground water. It also claimed that the tribunal had no jurisdiction in the matter.
This comes just days after the Madurai bench of Madras High Court ordered that Sterlite should not be opened till January 21. The court’s verdict to stay the construction and expansion of Vedanta’s Sterlite plant at the Thoothukudi unit came against the backdrop of continuing protests in Tamil Nadu over pollution concerns.
During the course of the agitation, at least 13 people were killed and several injured on May 22 last year, when police opened fire on protestors in Tuticorin. They were opposing the proposed expansion of a copper smelter of Sterlite Copper, believed to cause further environmental pollution.
What the NGT said
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 government for closing the plant indefinitely since May 28. Taking a cue from the expert panel, NGT stated that as long as the company is willing to abide by the pollution control norms and also take further precautions, the state cannot shut down plants based on hyper-technicalities, referring to what the state pollution regulator called “irreversible pollution” in its report.
The NGT also asked the State Pollution Control Board 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 law within three weeks.
People vs. Vedanta-Sterlite
Vedanta’s plans in the Tuticorin region have always been met with a steely reserve. Controversies have followed the Sterlite Copper unit, ever since it commenced operation in 1997. Residents protesting against it for years have alleged that the copper smelter has caused severe environmental damage to the land’s soil, water and air. Citing issues like disposal of copper waste and effluents from the operational unit, protestors have been demanding its permanent closure.
This is not the first time the plant has faced closure. In 2013, it was shut down 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 8,00,000 tonnes per year.
The plant was shut down in March as part of a 15-day scheduled maintenance, during which 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.
Here’s what happened next
The violent turn on May 22 sparked nationwide outrage, and was severely denounced by the opposition and environmental activists alike. Soon after the incident, the TNSPCB disconnected power supply to Sterlite Copper’s smelter after finding out that the unit was “carrying out activities to resume production” despite being asked to hold until its licence to operate is renewed, reported ANI.
Police officials justified attacking the protestors, telling the AFP news agency, “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, Tamil Nadu chief minister E.K. Palaniswami had defended the police saying they fired in self-defence, even blaming “certain political parties”, “NGOs” and “anti-social elements” for the violence. Parties like the Congress and DMK dove right into the crisis, in support of the protestors and even calling strikes against private profiteering.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.