Sterlite plant in Tamil Nadu to remain shut, SC dismisses Vedanta plea | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Sterlite plant in Tamil Nadu to remain shut, SC dismisses Vedanta plea

By, New Delhi
Mar 01, 2024 04:30 AM IST

The health and welfare of the residents of the area is again a matter of utmost concern, said the court

Vedanta’s copper smelting plant in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi will stay closed, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, declaring that the plant’s contributions to the nation are subordinated to the public trust theory and sustainable development standards.

Sterlite Copper plant in TN has remained shut since 2018.(Reuters)
Sterlite Copper plant in TN has remained shut since 2018.(Reuters)

The plant by Sterlite Copper, the Indian subsidiary of Vedanta Resources, a global mining and metals conglomerate, has remained shut since 2018 over violations of environmental norms and protests of the local population against its operation.

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Dismissing Vedanta’s plea, a bench led by Chief Justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud held that the 2020 Madras high court’s judgment affirming the shut-down notice to the plant by the Tamil Nadu government and the state pollution control board called for no interference since it was based on sound reasoning.

Also Read | ‘Vedanta can’t have free run’: SC on plea to reopen Sterlite plant

“Closure of industry undoubtedly is not a matter of first choice. However, the repeated nature of breaches, coupled with the severity of the violations would in this analysis leave neither the statutory authorities nor the high court to take any other view unless they were to be oblivious of their plain duty,” said the bench, also comprising justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.

It added while the court is conscious of the fact that the unit has been contributing to the productive assets of the nation and providing employment and revenue in the area, equally, “the court has to be mindful of other well settled principles, including the principles of sustainable development, polluter pays principles and public trust doctrine”.

“The health and welfare of the residents of the area is again a matter of utmost concern. In the ultimate analysis, the state government is responsible for preserving and protecting their concerns,” underlined the order.

Also Read | SC seeks ‘way forward’ from TN on restarting Sterlite plant

The adverse order against Vedanta came days after the Supreme Court mulled setting up a committee, comprising experts on pollution control and environment, which it said could submit a report on copper smelter operations, conditions for operations and reparations payable for environmental harm.

The Tamil Nadu government and its pollution control board , however, opposed the court’s February 14 suggestion, arguing Vedanta is a “repeat offender” and a “chronic polluter” while claiming the company dumped and disposed copper slag and gypsum in a harmful manner. On its part, Vedanta agreed with the court’s suggestion on forming a committee of experts, adding that a retired judge of the Supreme Court could chair the panel, and suggesting that the committee submit its report in a month.

In its order on Thursday, the bench seemed to agree with the state that the issues relating to disposal of copper slag, gypsum and other hazardous waste remained a matter of serious concerns despite a slew of directives issued to Vedanta by the Supreme Court in 2013 to ensure proper authorisation and disposal mechanism.

At the same time, the bench refused to delete the strictures passed by the high court against the state pollution control board for its failure to adequately regulate the plant’s ongoing violations of environmental regulations.

“We are of the view that the high court was justified in making those observations in regard to the lack of alacrity on the part of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in discharging its duties,” said the bench.

Tens of thousands of protesters had taken to the streets of Tuticorin in May 2018 against a proposed expansion of Sterlite’s 400,000-tonne annual capacity smelter. After the protests turned violent and police opened fire, 13 protesters died.

A week later, the state pollution control board and the state government ordered the plant shut for alleged pollution. The plant, at that time, was producing over 400,000 tonnes of metal ores annually and accounted for 40% of India’s copper output.

During the arguments in the top court in February, Vedanta claimed that it has completely abided by the directions issued by the Supreme Court in 2013 and that the company was being targeted by the state government. The company, represented by senior counsel Shyam Divan, further agreed to be put to additional conditions for resuming its operation. Divan also highlighted that the plant, at the time it was closed, was producing over 400,000 tonnes of metal ores annually and accounted for 40% of India’s copper output.

Appearing for the TNPCB and state government, senior lawyers CS Vaidyanathan and Gopal Sankaranarayanan pressed that larger public interest required the plant to remain shut in the wake of repeated breaches by it. They were emphatic that the Sterlite Copper plant did not have to be considered a national asset nor was there any loss to the regional economy owing to the closure of the plant since Thoothukudi (also known as Tuticorin) is emerging as a new hub for the automobile industry. Vaidyanathan further claimed that given the current state of India’s copper industry, Vedanta’s re-opening would not augment domestic supply, but would be aimed largely at the foreign market.

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