Madras High Court has dismissed petitions filed by Vedanta Limited seeking reopening of the Sterlite copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi. The court also refused to order status quo until the company went to the Supreme Court for appeal.
The Sterlite copper smelting plant has been in the news for all the wrong reasons since March 2018 and even prior to that. The plant has been facing resistance from fishermen groups in the area since the time the plant was established in 1993.
On March 24, 2018 Thoothukudi saw a wave of protests with a large gathering of people agitating against the plant’s expansion plans. Sterlite Copper is a copper smelting unit and is a subsidiary of the London-based Vedanta Group. Sterlite produces non-ferrous metals like copper, aluminium and zinc, along with chemicals such as sulphuric acid and phosphoric acid. The plant in Thoothukudi is one of two copper plants in the country, the other one being in Silvassa, Dadra and Nagar Haveli.
The plant was shut down once in 2010 by Madras High Court in response to a petition, which was stayed by the apex court. In 2011, the Supreme Court ordered the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to inspect the plant and report found high levels of copper, lead, cadmium and fluoride in the groundwater in the area. In 2013, after a sulphur dioxide leak, the apex court imposed a fine of Rs. 100 crore and let the plant operate.
Going by the history of the Sterlite plant it may seem justified that the Madras High Court has refused it permission to reopen. The bench comprising Justices TS Sivagnanam and V Bhavani Subbaroyan, pronounced the order in a VC hearing; the judgment in the case was pending since March as the pandemic delayed the same.
The Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board had rejected the plant’s application for renewal of Consent to Operate in 2018 on grounds that it had violated environmental laws. The state government issued a closure order on May 28, 2018, after a massive protest against the plant resulted in killing of 13 people in police firing. Since, then Vedanta has been filing pleas seeking permission to reopen. The company did get a favorable order from the National green tribunal in December 2018, but the same was set aside by the apex court stating that the tribunal did not have the jurisdiction over the case. Thereafter the case came to the Madras High Court and the two-judge bench has been hearing the case since June 2019.
The state denied the contention that the closure was ordered as a reaction to the killing of the 13 protesters and stated that this was not the sole reason behind it. The New Indian Express reported that the state further argued that it had full authority and powers to shut a factory when it caused a serious threat to the environment and ecology, claiming that the pollution caused by the Sterlite plant was much higher than pollution caused by other companies in the SIPCOT area in Thoothukudi.
Vedanta also contended that the state pollution board’s findings were based on old reports and that waste generated from the plant was non-hazardous.
Calling the judgment “shocking and sad day for India”, the company CEO Pankaj Kumar confirmed to TNIE that ‘they will take a call on next course of action after going through the judgement. He further added that ‘the verdict will be challenged before Supreme Court.’
The judgment was, however, hailed by DMK MP Kanimozhi as well as Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar. “It is a victory for people in their fight against Sterlite plant. It is justice given for the 13 people who sacrificed their lives for the cause. The MDMK has been fighting for the closure of the plant for around 26 years. This verdict is indeed the happiest news for us,” MDMK general secretary Vaiko told TNIE.