'Serious Violations' : Supreme Court Dismisses Vedanta's Plea To Reopen Copper Smelting Unit In Tamil Nadu's Tuticorin

Awstika Das

29 Feb 2024 11:26 AM GMT

  • Serious Violations : Supreme Court Dismisses Vedantas Plea To Reopen Copper Smelting Unit In Tamil Nadus Tuticorin

    Citing 'repeated breaches' and 'serious violations' on the part of Vedanta, the Supreme Court on Thursday (February 29) refused to grant it permission to reopen its Sterlite copper smelting plant in Tamil Nadu's Tuticorin.A bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra dismissed the special leave petition filed by Vedanta Limited against an August 2020...

    Citing 'repeated breaches' and 'serious violations' on the part of Vedanta, the Supreme Court on Thursday (February 29) refused to grant it permission to reopen its Sterlite copper smelting plant in Tamil Nadu's Tuticorin.

    A bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra dismissed the special leave petition filed by Vedanta Limited against an August 2020 Madras High Court ruling. By this detailed judgment, the high court had dismissed a batch of pleas by the company against the closure of its copper plant in Tuticorin and other consequential orders passed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).

    "The closure of industry is undoubtedly not a matter of first choice. However, the repeated nature of breaches, coupled with the severity of the violations, would, in this analysis, allow neither the statutory authorities nor the high court to take any other view unless they were to be oblivious of their plain duty," the apex court held today. 

    In its verdict, the court notably affirmed the principles of sustainable development, the polluters pay principle, and the public trust doctrine. Although the unit has been contributing to the productive assets of the nation and providing employment and the revenue in the area, these well-settled principles of environmental jurisprudence must be remembered, the bench observed. It noted in its order -

    "The court has to be mindful of the other well setttled principles, including the principle of sustainable development, polluter pays principle and the public trust doctrine. The health and welfare of the residents of the area of utmost concern and in the ultimate analysis, the state government is responsible for preserving and protecting their concerns...After capable evaluation, we have come to the conclusion that the special leave petition by the industrial unit does not warrant interference under Article 136 of the Constitution. The special leave petition stands dismissed."

    Further, the court noted that the statutory authorities entered multiple findings of facts over which the high court refused to interfere in the exercise of its judicial review power. It also refused the petitioner-company's argument that there was a serious error in the Madras High Court's approach warranting interference under Article 136.

    Vedanta argued that since the closure of its plant was based on five grounds, namely, its failure to furnish groundwater reports, copper slag dumping, non-renewal of hazardous waste permission, non-supply of ambient air quality report with respect to arsenic substances, and non-creation of gypsum pond, the high court was not justified while exercising its writ jurisdiction, in inquiring into other grounds of environmental violations. The bench, however, recorded -

    "The state government and pollution control board have submitted that the petitioner had not merely challenged the orders averse to them, but in addition sought a mandamus for the issuance of renewal permissions. Therefore, they argued, it was open to the high court not only to inquire into the grounds on which closure had been directed, but to determine whether the petitioner was entitled to get renewal permissions. From a reading of the high court's judgment, it has emerged that the petitioner expressly consented to the high court inquiring into all the facets of the matter so as to determine fully and finally as to whether the petitioner would be entitled to renewal of the permissions granted to it. Otherwise, even if the orders impugned were to be set aside, both the board and the government would have been justified in requesting the high court to remand the proceedings back to the competent statutory authority for redetermination afresh. This course of action was obviated on the petitioner submitting to the high court that it was ready and willing to have the high court evaluate the entirety of the matter in its full perspective. The petitioner, having agreed to this course of action, we are not inclined to entertain the submission that the high court has committed an error of jurisdiction."

    Not only this, but the Supreme Court also dismissed the appeals filed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board challenging the observations made by the Madras High Court against it regarding its inaction, observing, "We are of the view that the high court was justified in making those observation in regard to the lack of alacrity on the part of the TNPCB in discharging its duties."

    During the rejoinder argument of Vedanta today, Chief Justice Chandrachud told Senior Advocate Shyam Divan, the company's lawyer, that there are multiple violations involved in the matter. The chief justice asked, "There are complete violations Mr. Divan. And these are findings of facts by the high court. Why should we interfere?"

    On the last occasion, the bench asked how Vedanta could have operated the copper smelter despite the expiry of its hazardous waste license. When Divan pointed to the 'massive delay' on part of the pollution control board in processing the application for renewal of the unit's hazardous waste authorisation, Chief Justice Chandrachud explained that notwithstanding what appeared to be a failure on the part of the pollution control board, the highest court of the land saying entities without authorisation should be allowed to operate in view of the board's delay in processing their applications would set a 'very wrong precedent'.

    Earlier this month, the apex court mulled over the idea of forming this expert committee, emphasising the need for an objective evaluation that considers both the investment interests of Vedanta and the welfare of the public in the region. Outlining the potential benefits of such a committee, the court urged counsel representing the State of Tamil Nadu, Senior Advocates Gopal Sankaranarayanan and CS Vaidyanathan, to collaborate on a comprehensive modality that best serves public interest.

    Subsequently, the court reiterated its suggestion. At the outset, the bench categorically affirmed its obligation to protect the health and welfare of the local community in the region which has witnessed sporadic protests since 1999 against Vedanta's factory over allegations of soil, water, and air contamination, as well as a violent confrontation in May 2018 between the police and protesters that claimed 13 lives.

    At the same time, a 'way forward', Chief Justice Chandrachud suggested, could be an independent verification on the conditions to be imposed now on the mining company to ensure compliance with environmental norms and additional safeguards. Agreeing with this suggestion, Senior Advocate Shyam Divan, on behalf of the plant, said that this committee could constitute representatives from the environment ministry, NEERI, the Central Pollution Control Board, the Indian Institute of Technology, TNPCB, Vedanta, along with three independent experts.

    The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, however, questioned the necessity for appointing an expert committee when detailed findings had already been rendered by the Madras High Court in an 800-page-long judgment. On the board's behalf, Senior Advocate CS Vaidyanathan emphatically argued that the facility had been closed due to extensive pollution in the surrounding area. Despite recommendations from several committees urging the company to take corrective actions, these measures were not implemented, he alleged.

    Although initially inclined to direct the constitution of an expert committee, the court ultimately ruled against the Indian multinational mining company, holding that the high court order dismissing its challenge against Tamil Nadu government's refusal to renew Sterlite copper plant's consent to operate (CTO) did not merit any interference.

    Senior Advocate Shyam Divan appeared for Vedanta.

    Senior Advocate CS Vaidyanathan appeared for the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, while Senior Advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan appeared for the State of Tamil Nadu.

    Case Details

    Vedanta Limited v. State of Tamil Nadu & Ors. | Special Leave Petition (Civil) No. 10159-10168 of 2020

    Citation : 2024 LiveLaw (SC) 211

    Click here to read the judgment 

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