Vedanta Sterlite plant: SC bats for environmental safeguards, says can't be oblivious to community concerns

The plant in Tamil Nadu's Thoothukudi has been closed since May 2018 when 13 people died as police opened fire on a protest against pollution caused by the plant

Supreme Court (file photo)
Supreme Court (file photo)


The Supreme Court on Wednesday told Sterlite Copper, a Vedanta group firm, that it cannot be oblivious to the wider concerns of the local community in Tamil Nadu's Thoothukudi, and will have to implement the environmental safeguards suggested by the proposed expert panel before its plant can be reopened.

The court had said on 14 February that a panel of domain experts may be set up to inspect the closed plant, suggest further compliance of green norms, and the way forward.

The plant has been closed since May 2018 after 13 people were killed as police opened fire to quell a protest over alleged pollution caused by it.

A bench of Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra said keeping the plant shut would not serve any purpose but at the same time, the court has to be mindful of public health and welfare.

"They are voiceless people. They all cannot come here. We cannot be oblivious to the wider concerns of the community," CJI Chandrachud said. "We may not be able to direct that you start operating today, but we can ensure that terms are put to you by an expert panel so that a red category industry can start on deposit of a certain amount and on satisfying environmental safeguards."

Industrial units with a pollution index score of 60 or above are categorised as red.

The bench told senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for the company, that it cannot fault the high court verdict which upheld the closure and said if there is a gas leak in future, the moral responsibility would lie with this court.

Divan, while suggesting a way forward, said the court may appoint a committee of experts comprising representatives of the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), IIT, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), Vedanta, and three independent experts.

"It is suggested that the committee be chaired by a retired justice of the Supreme Court," he said, adding the panel may be requested to submit its report within a month.

Divan added the remit of the committee could be to make recommendations and suggest conditions for resumption of operations at Vedanta’s copper smelter unit, including additional environmental safeguards, if required.

"Pending receipt of the report, the petitioners may be permitted to carry out refurbishment, repair and maintenance of the unit at the petitioner's risk and cost," he said, while clarifying this work will not involve any production activity.

Divan suggested that for the purpose of giving effect to the order of the apex court, the closed unit shall be de-sealed and power supply to it restored only to facilitate the preparation of the report and for carrying out refurbishment, repair and maintenance.

Senior advocate C.S. Vaidyanathan, appearing for the Tamil Nadu government, said "committee after committee" has found evidence of pollution at the plant.

He added that the state government has taken a decision that this industry cannot be allowed to operate and any committee formed cannot override the judgement of the high court.

CJI Chandrachud said the committee will place terms before the company and it will be ensured that they are complied with.

When Vaidyanathan referred to a copper plant coming up in Gujarat, the CJI questioned why the TNPCB had given approvals to Sterlite to operate in the state. "Indian law does not bar smelting of copper," Chandrachud said.

Vaidyanathan added that the argument advanced by the Vedanta group that the closure of the plant would have an adverse impact on the economy was not true as Thoothukudi is about to become an auto hub with some new MoUs signed on Tuesday.

The hearing remained inconclusive and will continue on Thursday.

On 14 February, the top court proposed a panel of domain experts to inspect the closed Sterlite copper unit, saying shutting down a plant of “national importance” will not serve anybody’s purpose.

Divan had argued that since the matter pertains to the state's public interest, the private interest of an industry, and the employment of several people, a way forward has to be found.

At least 13 people were killed and many injured on 22 May 2018, when police opened fire on a huge crowd of people protesting against pollution allegedly caused by the copper smelting unit and its proposed expansion.

Subsequently, the Tamil Nadu government and the TNPCB ordered the closure of the mining group's plant over pollution concerns.

The top court had in May 2023 asked the Tamil Nadu government to take appropriate decisions in pursuance of its 10 April direction by which it had allowed the Vedanta group to carry out the upkeep of the unit under the supervision of a local-level monitoring committee.

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