18 February 2019

The Supreme Court has upheld a Madras High court decision and agreed to Tamil Nadu’s government’s plea in favour of keeping the polluting plat shut. The apex court also ruled that also that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) does not have the authority to repeal the government order against Sterlite.

The SC decision comes as a big blow to mining giant Vedanta whose Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi has been idling for more than two years after it was forced to close its smelter following violent protests by local residents that left several dead.

The Supreme Court agreed to Tamil Nadu’s argument that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) does not have the authority to repeal the government order against Sterlite. The court also directed the plant to take its plea to re-open the smelter, to the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court. The National Green Tribunal on 15 December overruled the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s (TNPCB) closure and directed restoration of electricity to the smelter.

The NGT held that the state government’s decision to shut the smelter plant was not sustainable and did not justify the impugned orders. The tribunal’s stand was in line with that of the three-member committee constituted to probe the closure of the copper plant.Following this the state government approached the Supreme Court questioning the validity of the NGT’s judgement and to prove that Sterlite had violated environmental norms. “The Supreme court has that the NGT does have the jurisdiction to interfere in the Tamil Nadu Government’s order or even form a committee to address the issue,” confirms a source in the TNPCB. “We have been maintaining that the NGT didn’t have authority from the very beginning. This is a huge victory for Tamil Nadu,” reports quoted TNPCB sources as saying.

The TNPCB argued in Supreme Court that the pollution levels of the groundwater in and around Vedanta group’s Sterlite copper smelting plant in the state was very high and that there was no remedy to restore it to permissible levels.

Describing the situation as “unfortunate”, senior counsel CA Vaidyanathan told the bench of Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman and Justice Navin Sinha that the “desirable level of water is 500 TDS and the permissible level is 2000 TDS but what is prevailing today is 15,000 to 20,000 TDS”.

Defending the decision to close down the plant permanently, Vaidyanathan said that they have evidence that the groundwater has been contaminated because of the pollutants from the plant.He further questioned the jurisdiction of the green tribunal to deal with the matter, and said, “the green tribunal could not have constituted a committee for going into the issue. That is not contemplated under the NGT Act. Adjudicating powers can’t be delegated.”T

he counsel for Sterlite argued that the State government has given it a bad name and that the pollution report that was shown to the court was six months after the plant was put under lock.Describing the action against the plant as “political”, senior counsel CA Sundaram appearing for Vedanta, said that the state government overlooked the plea for daily maintenance to plug the sulphuric acid leaks.Vedanta also pointed out that unless electricity to the plant was restored, it would not be able to comply with the conditions imposed by the National Green Tribunal in its 15 December 2018 judgment.

The Tamil Nadu government, however, stated that the plant management resorted to quick fixes when the environmental violations were pointed out to them.Defending the May 2018 order putting the plant under lock, senior counsel KV Vishwanathan said that the decision was based on sound reasons.

Justifying its decision not to grant consent to operate to Sterlite Copper Smelter plant, the Tamil Nadu government pointed out that Sterlite, failed to furnish groundwater analysis report, remove copper slag stored along the River Uppar and not constructing physical barrier between the river and the slag. The company was not authorised to generate and dispose hazardous waste and the unit has not analysed parameters of heavy metals in the ambient air quality. Further, the unit failed to construct gypsum pond as per CPCB guidelines.

KS Alagiri, TNCC president, said, “I welcome the Supreme Court judgement over the Sterlite unit, which will bring comfort to the people who were affected by the unit. I urge on behalf of TNCC that the Tamil Nadu government take steps to find a permanent solution to the Sterlite unit issues through court.” 

Dr S Ramadoss, founder of PMK said, “By this judgment, the efforts of the Sterlite firm to reopen the unit, have been thwarted. It is a victory for Tamil Nadu. The judgment brings joy and peace to the people of Thoothukudi. The state government should appoint legal experts to argue in favour of Tamil Nadu in its next move.” K Balakrishnan, CPM state secretary, said in his release, “It is a victory for the protest and sacrifice of people of Thoothukudi.” 

TTV Dhinakaran, deputy general secretary of AMMK, said, “It is a victory for the protest of the people. At least now, the Tamil Nadu government should take a policy decision to close down the plant permanently.” R Sarathkumar, founder-president of AISMK, Vijayakanth, founder-president of DMDK, Vaiko, general secretary of MDMK and GK Vasan, TMC (Moopanar) also welcomed the order.

Victim of shooting seeks govt help
Thoothukudi: Mother of police firing victim M Vijayakumar appealed to the district administration to foot the medical bill of her son as promised by the State government. In a petition submitted to Collector Sandeep Nanduri, Vijayakumar’s mother M Bramasakthi said that her son suffered bullet injuries during the anti-Sterlite protest on May 22 last. While he miraculously survived, his thigh bone was broken, she said. Thoothukudi Medical College Hospital had referred Vijayakumar to Madurai Meenakshi Mission, but the cost of treatment had not yet been met by the State government, she claimed. Vijayakumar said that during a recent checkup, the doctors found that his thigh bones were yet to join together. The doctors advised another surgery to avoid complications. 

Madurai: The Supreme Court’s order is proof that people could successfully protest against a corporate giant, commented High Court advocate and anti-Sterlite activist S Vanchinathan. “This verdict has proved that people’s protest against a corporate giant would win. However, the legal battles over this issue are to continue in the Madras High Court.”