Above: Tuticorin witnessed mayhem for 100 days this year due to the anti-Sterlite movement/Photo: UNI
In a heartening move, the Madras High Court has set aside an NGT order which allowed the reopening of the Sterlite Copper plant and said that status quo would continue till January 21
By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai
Hearing a petition against reopening of the Sterlite Copper unit in Tuticorin following an NGT order, the Madras High Court has ordered status quo. The NGT had on December 15 set aside a Tamil Nadu government order for closure of the plant. Justices KK Sasindhran and PD Audikesavalu of the Madurai Bench directed that status quo would continue till January 21.
Earlier, allowing appeals of the Sterlite Copper plant, the principal bench of the NGT comprising of chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, two judicial members Justices Raghuvendra S Rathore and K Ramakrishnan and two executive members, had said: “The grounds on which the state government took the decision to close the plant were ‘non sustainable’ and ‘unjustified’ under the existing laws of the land.”
The NGT also quashed the orders passed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) in this regard and directed it to issue fresh orders within three weeks for the renewal of consent and authorisation to deal with the hazardous substances from the plant strictly in accordance with existing laws. The NGT also directed the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Ltd, an arm of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, to restore power supply to the plant.
The NGT order further said: “We direct the appellant (Sterlite Copper Plant) to spend an amount of Rs 100 crore within a period of three years for welfare of the inhabitants in the area. The action plan prepared for utilisation of the amount be approved from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change which may also oversee the compliance thereof. Such action plan and progress achieved in implementation of plan may also be uploaded on the company’s website for the purpose of dissemination.”
By this order, the NGT has quashed orders passed by the TNPCB on April 9, April 12 and May 23, 2018, and also quashed the Tamil Nadu government order of May 28. All four orders were to shut the plant.
The Tamil Nadu government reacted immediately to the NGT order. “Under no circumstances will we allow Sterlite to reopen. We will challenge the NGT’s order in the Supreme Court very soon. We will not leave any stone unturned in our efforts to shut the Sterlite Copper plant at Tuticorin forever,” announced Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisami. Echoing this, Tuticorin collector Sandeep Nanduri assured the local people on December 15 that as the chief minister himself had announced that the government would immediately approach the Supreme Court, the district administration would not even consider restoring the power supply to the plant and issuing a Consent to Operate certificate to Sterlite. Meanwhile, Sterlite has filed a caveat in the Supreme Court after the Tamil Nadu government’s decision.
Protests against Sterlite have a long history. Several villages situated around the plant were up in arms from 1998 itself. They and several environmental groups squarely blamed it for polluting their environment as well as causing a range of health problems to them.
In 2010, the Madras High Court had ordered the closing down of the plant for violating environmental regulations. But the Supreme Court in April 2013 quashed the High Court order and allowed the plant to reopen. However, it imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore on Sterlite for polluting the environment and for operating without a renewal of consent from the TNPCB.
However, after the 2013 Supreme Court verdict, a gas leak occurred in the plant, resulting in the death of one person and injuries to several others. Subsequently, the plant was blamed for various health issues affecting the local people. This forced then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa to order the closure of the plant. Sterlite went to the NGT, which overturned the state government’s order and the plant was reopened.
The present crisis erupted after the TNPCB gave permission to the plant for expansion and protests started on February 5, 2018, and continued for over 100 days. On May 22, 2018, a huge rally was organised by various environmental groups and they started moving towards the Tuticorin collectorate. Though the protesters were unarmed the police opened fire, resulting in the death of 13 people and injuries to many. It was not clear who ordered the firing.
Palanisami, who was also holding the home portfolio then, told mediapersons: “Even I did not know that the police had opened fire, resulting in the killing of 13 persons. I came to know from television news channels after I reached home.”
This further angered the protesters and gave enough fodder to the Opposition who attacked the chief minister for his “lackadaisical attitude”. Later on, a petition was filed by environmental groups in the Madras High Court, which ordered a CBI inquiry into the police firing. The Tamil Nadu government challenged the CBI inquiry and approached the Supreme Court, which dismissed the petition. Recently, the CBI filed an FIR against unknown persons for opening fire and killing 13 people.
As expected, the Sterlite administration welcomed the NGT order. “We welcome this order to resume operations of our Copper Smelter at Tuticorin. We are happy that all those affected by the closure will get back their source of livelihood and the town of Tuticorin will revert to normalcy. We will study the order in detail and shall take all steps to require restarting the operations as per guidelines given by the NGT,” said P Ramnath, CEO, Sterlite Copper Plant, in a statement.
But environmentalists and local people are not convinced. “The Tamil Nadu government’s decision to appeal in the Supreme Court may not end in victory for the local people. The only solution is for the government to bring in a special act prohibiting any copper smelter unit in the state,” said M Vetriselvan, an environmentalist and advocate.
A Gopal, a local villager, said: “Sterlite will never implement the Rs 100-crore plan for improving the ecological conditions in our area. The same directions were given by the Supreme Court in 2013, but till today, nothing has moved. For this, not only me but the next generation is also paying the price. I am already afflicted with lung-related problems and last year, my daughter got a rare lung disease which often makes her sick.”
Interestingly, the NGT order said that Vedanta can restart its copper smelter in Tuticorin, which accounts for nearly half of India’s output. But at what cost, is the million-dollar question.
All political parties in Tamil Nadu, except the BJP, are strongly opposing the NGT order. With Lok Sabha elections nearing, no one can afford to precipitate the situation.