ILNS: The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed Vedanta Limited to operate its Sterlite Plant in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, to manufacture medical grade oxygen amid the national COVID-19 crisis.
Senior Advocate C.S. Vaidyanathan, who appeared for the state of Tamil Nadu, placed a memorandum before the Bench, which read that Tamil Nadu will constitute a monitoring committee to monitor operations at the Sterlite plant.
Senior Advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Vedanta Limited, submitted that it will only run the oxygen plant to meet the national scarcity of oxygen during the COVID-19 crisis.
He also submitted that Vedanta Limited will not run the copper plant in the Sterlite factory. Thereafter, he informed the Court that electricity to manufacture the oxygen will be bought from the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation and the state government will provide water for the manufacturing of oxygen.
He further submitted that it will take 10 days for the plant to be fully functional and after becoming fully functional, the plant can produce 200 metric tonnes of oxygen in a day.
Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing on behalf of the families who live near the Sterlite plant, said they were very badly affected by the pollution caused by the Copper Smelting industry.
He submitted that they support the need for oxygen requirement, but expressed the following concerns:-
a. In the past, assurances given by the Vedanta Limited have not been fulfilled, as they are chronic defaulters.
b. Some hazardous slog, which is present in the premises of the factory, has still not been removed, which can cause adverse effects to the population residing nearby.
c. He also pointed out that Vedanta Limited, in its affidavit submitted to Supreme Court, has mentioned that only 45 workers are required to run the plant. But now, the company is seeking permission for 250 workers to enter the premises, which clearly depicts the malafide intention of the Vedanta Group, as they want to ensure the maintenance of the entire factory. Therefore, Mr Gonsalvis requested the Bench that no extra worker shall be allowed to enter the premises.
d. Further, he also submitted that the plant is closed for more than three years therefore, it has become obsolete and cannot produce oxygen, which will be fit for medical use.
Thereafter, the Bench passed its order and constituted an oversight committee to look after the affairs of the Plant, which is manufacturing oxygen. The Bench said the committee will constitute of the following persons: –
- Collector of Tuticorin, who will be the Chairperson of the committee.
- Superintendent of Police of the concerned district.
- District Engineer
- Two state government officials with expertise in environment
- Two environmental experts
(A panel of environmental experts will be nominated by the Ministry of Environment and Forest and the members of the local community, who are the victims of the pollution caused by the Sterlite Factory. They will nominate two members from such panel, to be appointed as member of the oversight committee.)
The Bench also gave stern warning that the plant should be used only for the purpose of manufacturing medical grade oxygen and not for any other purpose like manufacturing of copper and electricity.
The Court further said that this order will remain in force till July 31, 2021 and thereafter, the matter will be taken up again, if the situation warrants.
The Tamil Nadu government yesterday permitted the non-ferrous metal company to reopen its Sterlite plant in Tuticorin/Thoothukudi for producing oxygen for four months under the supervision of the District Collector. This was done to make up for the oxygen needs of the country during the Covid-19 times.
Vedanta had opposed the proposal of the apex court to allow the Tamil Nadu government to operate the company’s oxygen plant.
In an additional affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, Vedanta stated the oxygen plant needed manpower of 45 trained personnel to operate it at its full capacity and the plant can be operated only by engineers with expert domain knowledge, and by those who are competent and trained over a period of time, with an experience of at least 10 years.
On April 22, Vedanta had moved an urgent application before the Apex Court Bench led by former CJI SA Bobde through Senior Advocate Harish Salve, who sought the Court’s permission to open the Tuticorin Plant. He said the plant can manufacture 1000 tonnes of oxygen everyday, which can be supplied free daily.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the Country is in dire need of oxygen. Vedanta wants to make its plant operational, but it should be allowed to produce only oxygen for health purposes.
The then Chief Justice SA Bobde also mentioned that in order to address other emerging issues due to increase in COVID-19 cases, the Bench is taking Suo Motu Cognisance regarding the Supply of Oxygen, Supply of Essential Drug, the method and manner of vaccination and the power to impose lockdown. The Bench, also comprising Justices S Ravindra Bhat and L Nageswara Rao, opined that power to impose lockdown remains with the State Government, not with the Judiciary.
The Supreme Court had earlier refused the mining giant’s plea for the immediate reopening of the Sterlite copper plant at Tuticorin. Vedanta had approached the apex court, challenging the Madras High Court decision rejecting its request to reopen the Sterlite copper plant.
In 2018, the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) had shut down the plant citing violations of environmental laws. Later, the plant had turned into a protest site. The protest took a violent turn on its 100th day when police opened fire on the protesters, leading to several civilian casualties.
Earlier, the Tamil Nadu government had opposed the plea after the TNPCB said the plant was a consistent polluter. The government had submitted in its report that the interim arrangement to reopen the plant cannot be given, particularly since the High Court had upheld the TNPCB order for closing the plant.
Tuticorin villagers had opposed the order of reopening of Sterlite plant, even on a trial basis. The villagers had said the drinking water was poisoned and people had contracted cancer. They said even the HC ruled such a plant can’t be set up in a residential zone. They have no regard for law or environment, said the villagers, pointing out that TNPCB didn’t act in all these years.
Earlier in February 2019, the Supreme Court set aside the National Green Tribunal order allowing the reopening of the Sterlite plant, on the ground that NGT did not have the jurisdiction to entertain the case. However, Vedanta was allowed to move the High Court against the orders.