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The Madras High Court today issued notice in the petition moved by Vedanta to reopen its Sterlite copper plant at Thoothukudi. The plea came up for admission today before a Bench of Justices M Sathyanarayanan and B Nirmal Kumar.
The Court, however, declined to accede to an interim prayer made by Vedanta to allow it to access the Sterlite plant for purposes of maintenance and basic administration.
In the preliminary hearing today, arguments for Vedanta were made by Senior Counsel Aryama Sundaram, PS Raman and ARL Sundaresan. Advocate General Vijay Narayan made submissions for the Tamil Nadu State Government, whereas Senior Advocate CS Vaidyanathan appeared for the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).
Intervenors in the matter, including local residents from Thoothukudi, were represented by Senior Advocate R Vaigai and Advocate NGR Prasad.
On the plea for interim access
During the hearing today, Vedanta pressed for interim control over the Sterlite copper plant, emphasising that the same is only sought to ensure the maintenance of the factory and its equipment. In this regard, a plea was also made to restore electricity at the plant for basic maintenance and administration purposes.
Aryama Sundaram argued that the plant is not being maintained properly by the state administration, which is presently in charge of it. Referring to materials gathered when Vedanta was allowed access to the premises for the purpose of evacuation, Sundaram queried,
“The collector is meant to be maintaining it. Is this the way they are maintaining it?…Does the collector have the experience, the wherewithal to look after this?“
It was also pointed out that a hazardous leak from the plant took place while the state administration was tasked to look after it.
Countering this claim, CS Vaidyanathan submitted that the leak had taken place earlier than indicated by Vedanta.
“Nobody is taking responsibility for this [the leak]”, argued Vaidyanathan.
“I agree”, rebutted Sundaram, “Nobody is taking any responsibility.”
Sundaram further submitted that no factory production would take place until the Madras High Court passes orders in the case. It was pointed out that, in any case, it would take months for the Sterlite plant to commence operations. Vedanta further indicated that it was willing to give an undertaking to the effect that it would not commence operations until Court orders are passed.
In this backdrop, PS Raman queried,
“How is the State or the public prejudiced by bringing the plant into shape?“
Raman proceeded to argue that if Vedanta succeeded in its petition, it would be its right to restart operations. On the other hand, if they were to lose the case, the company will only be bearing the expenses for maintaining the Sterlite plant. He also argued that if the state is in charge of the plant, it should also be responsible for the maintenance of the factory equipment, apart from the environmental maintenance.
While making allied submissions, ARL Sundaresan contended,
“If they’re objecting that [the interim plea] also, the objection is for objection’s sake alone.“
As the hearing progressed, the Bench made it clear that the state would be solely responsible for any environmental hazard caused by the Sterlite plant while it is in charge of the same. In response to a query posed by the Court, Advocate General Vijay Narayan also submitted that the state would take responsibility for any such consequence.
In the course of arguments, the Bench also had the occasion to orally observe,
“In a lighter vein, the responsibility should have come much earlier. That is all we are saying.”
Closure of Sterlite copper plant at Thoothukudi politically motivated
The main thrust of Vedanta’s challenge pertains to an order passed in April 2018, which had listed five grounds to direct the closure of the Sterlite plant. Individual objections were raised with respect to each of these five grounds. All subsequent orders for closure follow this initial order, argued Vedanta.
While this is the case, it has been argued that the closure of the plant is politically motivated. It was argued that the government resorted to the move only in response to protests against its proposed expansion, rather than on the basis of the five reasons cited for the closure.
To buttress this argument, Sundaram highlighted that the pollution caused by the Sterlite plant is minuscule compared to that of other factories in the area. He cited the example of the Thoothukudi Thermal Power Station, which he stated, causes 70 percent of the Sulphur Dioxide emissions. On the other hand, it was argued, the Sterlite plant is only responsible for 1 percent of the SO2 emissions.
Sundaram proceeded to point out that Sterlite produces 38 percent of India’s copper and had paid around Rs. 2000 crore in taxes last year. In this backdrop, he contended that the only reason for closing the factory could be the protests and violence which took place in May last year. The government was embarrassed, he argued.
Case affects people’s lives
Appearing for the intervenors, R Vaigai interjected strongly that the case has less to do with expenses and factory machinery, and more to do with the way the Sterlite plant has affected the lives of local residents.
“What about the damage suffered by the people?...The environment, my Lord, cannot be divorced from the location or the people,” Vaigai submitted.
Notably, she pointed out that affected people have already approached the Madurai Bench of the High Court, which is more accessible to the local residents. The petitions filed by them are still pending before the Madurai Bench. She argued that the Madurai Bench would be better suited to hear their grievances.
In response, the Court has permitted the intervenors to file impleadment applications in the matter.
The case has been posted to be taken up next on March 27, 2019.
Vedanta has challenged a series of closure orders passed last year by the TNPCB to shut down its Sterlite Copper plant at Thoothukudi citing environmental violations. The closure came amidst popular protest against the proposed expansion of its plant. These protests took a violent turn when the police opened fire on unarmed civilian protestors in May last year, leading to at least thirteen casualties. The move to shut down the Sterlite plant was also supported by the Tamil Nadu government.
In December last year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) allowed Vedanta’s challenge to the closure orders and permitted the reopening of the Sterlite plant. However, the Supreme Court set aside this ruling in February this year, on the ground that the NGT did not have jurisdiction to pass the ruling. However, the Supreme Court also granted Vedanta the liberty to move the Madras High Court for relief, paving the way for the present petition.