Sterlite’s litany of illegalities in Thoothukudi

The company has milked both government largesse and judicial apathy     

Saurav Datta

Since Vedanta’s subsidiary Sterlite started operating its first Thoothukudi copper smelting plant in 1997, and the second one in 2015, it has been flagrantly violating almost all environmental laws, through subterfuge and deceit, the people’s report claims. And it is evident from the details provided that once the Modi government came to power, not only has it turned a blind eye to the violations, but in many cases, actively encouraged them.

Brazen misrepresentation

In 2006, when the UPA government was in power, it made environmental laws and rules that made it mandatory for corporations to consult the public before setting up plants/projects. These rules were strengthened in 2009. In the same year, Sterlite applied for permission to build a second unit to its already existing plant. It secured this permission by misrepresenting that the location of the project was within a notified industrial area/estate, when in reality it was not the case, and thus got an exemption from public consultation.

It was only on September 28, 2010, that a Madras High Court bench comprising justices Elipe Dharmarao and N. Paul Vasanthkumar, in a writ petition filed by the National Trust for Clean Environment and other organisations, decided to order a complete closure of the plant because of flouting environmental laws and jeopardising people’s health and lives

Modi government’s largesse

Although the UPA government should have been more vigilant in accepting Sterlite’s claims, it was the NDA government which showered its benevolence on the company which had no compunction in endangering the environment and people’s lives.

Environment and development journalist Nitin Sethi, writing in the financial daily Business Standard, has painstakingly reviewed numerous documents and revealed how the government did this.

In December 2014, months after Modi came to power, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) allowed the company to build a second plant without holding any public consultation. The Ministry did this by a sleight of hand - by bringing in a “clarification” to the existing environmental regulations which exempted the company from fulfilling key legal obligations. This clarification was in reality an exemption. Then in March 2015, the ministry extended the green clearance till December 2018, Sethi has reported.

In 2016, the NGT came down heavily on the ministry for allowing illegalities to be committed, but by then it was too late. The company’s second plant had already commenced operations and was running at full steam.

Judiciary’s failure

It was not only the government but also the judiciary which has seemingly allowed impunity to Sterlite.

Litigation had been instituted by various environmental groups and civil society organisations against Sterlite since 1997, but the judiciary always demurred - uncritically accepting the company’s (fake) assurances and deferring any meaningful action. Meanwhile, the people’s protests continued to grow louder as more evidence of acute health hazards and environmental degradation (especially because Sterlite released the plants’ slush into the sea and Gulf of Mannar, an ecologically fragile zone) started to come in.

It was only on September 28, 2010, that a Madras High Court bench comprising justices Elipe Dharmarao and N. Paul Vasanthkumar, in a writ petition filed by the National Trust for Clean Environment and other organisations, decided to order a complete closure of the plant because of flouting environmental laws and jeopardising people’s health and lives.

Sterlite acted with remarkable alacrity, moving the Supreme Court immediately the day after. On April 2 2013, a bench of justices AK Patnaik and HL Gokhale, in Civil Appeal Nos. 2776-2783 of 2013, set aside the high court’s ruling. The apex court, totally ignoring the fact of Sterlite’s deceit and subterfuge, held that the high court had no power to cancel environment licences once the ministry had granted its approval. As for endangering people’s health and the environment, the top court allowed Sterlite to get away with its assurance that it would take “remedial measures” and allowed it to continue its operations, despite directing it to pay a heavy fine. The top court, in its ruling, reasoned that environment and public health need protection, but not at the cost of employment and industrial development.

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