Madras High Court refuses to allow reopening of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper Plant at Thoothukudi
Madras High Court refuses to allow reopening of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper Plant at Thoothukudi
Litigation News

BREAKING: Madras HC refuses to allow reopening of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper Plant at Thoothukudi [Read Judgment]

The judgment was pronounced this morning by a Division Bench of Justices TS Sivagnananam and Bhuvani Subbaroyan.

Meera Emmanuel

The Madras High Court today dismissed the plea filed by Vedanta challenging the closure of its Sterlite copper plant at Thoothukudi.

The Court also refused to accede to a request made by the counsel for Vedanta to maintain status quo for a few weeks.

The judgment was pronounced this morning by a Division Bench of Justices TS Sivagnananam and Bhuvani Subbaroyan. Orders were reserved in the matter in January this year.

While pronouncing the judgment this morning, the Court also informed that the verdict would have been out by March 12, if it were not for the COVID-19 pandemic. In view of the COVID-19 restrictions, the orders were dictated over phone, Justice Sivagnanam said, taking a cue from Justice DY Chandrachud.

What Madras HC said while dismissing Vedanta's plea

In its 815 page judgment passed today, the Court has found, inter alia, the following:

  • The Supreme Court’s 2013 verdict (wherein it imposed a Rs 100 crore fine but did not order the shut down of the Sterlite Copper plant) cannot bar the pollution control authorities or the State from exercising its powers with respect to the functioning of Vedanta’s plant (para 310)

  • Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper plant at Thoothukudi suffers from zonal disqualification as there is no material to indicate that there was a special industrial and hazardous use zone in the area, going by the Master Plan of Thoothukudi, in Meelavittan Village. Therefore, there is serious error in the location of Vedanta's industry in the land in question, the Court said (para 314).

  • There is sufficient material to show that there was pollution on account of Sterlite Copper’s activities. The Court said, inter alia, “We are inclined to accept the stand taken by the TNPCB to hold that the increase in the levels of TDS, chloride, sulphate and total hardness are all attributable to the petitioner's operation and therefore the order of closure cannot be stated to be on account of speculation.(para 395)

  • On the aspect of pollution, Vedanta had, inter alia, argued that it has spent substantial funds (Rs 508 crore) for environmental improvement projects. The Court, however, responded that this directly shows that Vedanta is a highly polluting industry and that these measures are required to be adopted to enable them to be termed as a “viable unit.” (para 514)

Despite these, the petitioner once again came to adverse notice of the respondents. Assessment and monitoring of pollution is a continuous process ... the conditions imposed while granting environment clearance, while granting consent to establish and operate, continue to remain in force and they are continuing conditions and not one time compliance condition”, the Court added.
  • An inspection report, on the basis of which renewal of consent to operate was given and which stated that Vedanta’s Plant had complied with mandatory conditions, was found by the Court to have been issued mechanically and, therefore, liable to be scrapped (para 419).

  • The Court added that, “it is evidently clear that there has been supine indifference on the part of the petitioner in compliance with the conditions. The so-called compliance report has not been examined for its correctness by the Board in its entirety. Had a genuine and concerted effort taken by the inspecting team, the report would have been fully against the petitioner.”

  • Vedanta has not complied with green belt requirements (para 460) which the Court said was also a reason not to permit Vedanta to continue any further (para 464).

  • Vedanta had failed to disclose the actual extent of land held by them while applying for environmental clearance for a proposed expansion of activities (para 482).

  • For a substantial period of time from 1995 till 2018, Vedanta was operating without a valid consent to operate (para 516).

“The shocking reality is that for the substantial period of the time from 1995 till 2018, the petitioner was operating without valid consent to operate. They were operating either on account of orders passed by Courts/Tribunal, or by stating that application for renewal of consent was pending.”

the Court records in para 516 of its judgment.

The Court, therefore, held that the State authorities were fully justified in considering the past conduct of Vedanta and “cumulatively considering all the reports of the expert agency from the year 1998 and arriving at a conclusion that the petitioner deserves to be permanently closed.”

The Court added that it finds no error in the decision to close down the plant, also considering “facts and figures about the long list of non-compliance by the petitioner (Vedanta) over the period of 22 years.” (para 519)

The Bench further found that the “health concern of the people in and around the petitioner's factory has not been properly monitored.

In this regard the Court said that there was no sufficient cross verification of the periodical health reports submitted by Vedanta and that a “deeper probe into this issue is required and as to what extent, the operation of the petitioner's unit has impacted on the health of the general public in the area in question.(para 547)

Notably, the Court rejected Vedanta’s submissions that the closure of its copper plant was triggered by the police violence that took place amid anti-Sterlite protests at Thoothukudi in 2018.

Responding to this and allied submissions, the Court referred to a compilation placed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board containing complaints against Vedanta. The Court noted that these include complaints by both political parties and the common man.

"...we hold that the orders rejecting the application for grant of consent, directing closure, permanent sealing of the petitioner industry cannot be treated as knee-jerk reaction pursuant to the unfortunate shooting incident, but it is a culmination of various issues solely attributable to the petitioner", the Court said (para 573).

The Court added that as per a 2019 report by the Central Government’s National Clean Air Programme, “Thoothukudi is the only District which finds place in the list of most polluted city in Tamil Nadu.

These statistics revealed by the Government of India clearly shows that the averment made by the petitioner that Thoothukudi is safer than Chennai is to be rejected as being unsubstantiated”, the Court said (para 623).

As a result, the pleas moved by Vedanta challenging the closure of its copper plant at Thoothukudi were dismissed.

A plea moved by an activist, Fatima seeking the demolition of the Sterlite plant at Thoothukudi was delinked from this batch of pleas and tagged with a connected matter pending before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court.

Case history

The petition challenging the closure of the Thoothukudi Sterlte Copper plant was moved in February last year, after the Supreme Court granted Vedanta liberty to move the High Court in this regard.

Vedanta’s Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi was shut down by the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) in 2018, citing violations of environmental laws. The closure order was passed immediately after the plant had turned into a protest site, with citizens opposing the expansion of the plant. The order was supported by the State government, which endorsed the same within a week.

In February 2019, the Supreme Court set aside a December 2018 NGT order that had allowed the reopening of the Sterlite plant. However, the order was set aside on the ground that the NGT did not have the jurisdiction to entertain the case. Therefore, Vedanta was allowed to move the High Court against the orders passed against it, leading to the present plea.

The plea had initially come up before the Bench of Justices M Sathyanarayanan and B Nirmal Kumar in March 2019. However, a change in roster/portfolio saw the case being taken away from this Bench.

Thereafter, it came up briefly before the Bench Justices KK Sasidharan and PT Asha. However, Justice Sasidharan recused from hearing the case since he had passed an order in a connected matter while sitting at the Madurai Bench in 2018.

The case was eventually listed before the Bench of Justices Sivagnanam and Subbaroyan, which commenced hearing arguments in the case on June 27, last year. However, following the portfolio change, the matter was listed before a Bench of Justices Sivagnanam and R Tharani.

This led the parties to request the then Acting Chief Justice Vineet Kothari to ensure that the matter is retained by the Bench of Justices Sivagnananm and Subbaroyan.

The parties told Justice Kothari that the administrative order signed off by former Chief Justice VK Tahilramani, before her unexpected resignation, was based on the erroneous assumption that the earlier Bench had only heard preliminary arguments in the matter. On the other hand, it was informed that, prior to the latest portfolio change, arguments had been on the verge of conclusion.

About three months later, the Bench of Justices Sivagnanam and Subbaroyan began hearing the Sterlite case again on December 16, 2019. Arguments by Vedanta concluded in December before the winter break. The State and intervenors in the matter, including local residents from Thoothukudi, made their arguments in the first week of January.

Following the conclusion of arguments, orders were finally reserved in the matter on January 8.

Read the Judgment:

Vedanta Limited v. State of Tamil Nadu - August 18 Madras HC Judgment.pdf
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