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Supreme Court Refuses To Recall Order Rejecting Vedanta's Interim Plea To Reopen Sterlite Plant Pending Appeal

Mehal Jain
22 Jan 2021 9:54 AM GMT
Supreme Court Refuses To Recall Order Rejecting Vedantas Interim Plea To Reopen Sterlite Plant Pending Appeal
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The Supreme Court on Friday refused to recall its order rejecting Vedanta's interim plea to reopen its Sterlite Copper smelting plant at Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu till the pendency of the appeal.The bench headed by Justice Rohinton Nariman had on December 2 last year refused to grant interim relief to Vedanta Ltd., rejecting the mining giant's plea for an immediate reopening of its Sterlite...

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The Supreme Court on Friday refused to recall its order rejecting Vedanta's interim plea to reopen its Sterlite Copper smelting plant at Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu till the pendency of the appeal.

The bench headed by Justice Rohinton Nariman had on December 2 last year refused to grant interim relief to Vedanta Ltd., rejecting the mining giant's plea for an immediate reopening of its Sterlite copper plant at Thoothukudi for an experimental run for 2, 4 or 6 weeks. The company had moved the top court following the Madras High Court verdict in August that dismissed Vedanta's writ petition to reopen its copper smelter and upheld the state government's decision to shut it down. The bench had listed the appeal against the Madras High Court decision for hearing in January next year.
On Friday, the bench headed by Justice Nariman also refused to take up the matter for an early hearing.

In December, 2020, Senior advocate AM Singhvi, appearing for the petitioner, had advanced that the plant, when it was operational, directly employed 4,000 people, and indirectly contributed to the employment of 20,000 people, besides the two lakh others in the downstream industry, who have now been affected on account of the closure of a plan for 30 months- "The plant accounted for 36% of the country's copper need. Its closure has made us a net importer of copper. This huge national wastage can be curbed by allowing the plan to run on an experimental basis"

"Please Look at the nature of the grounds for the closure. Each of the arguments for the closure can be best judged by observing the functioning of the plant on its reopening. Allowing it to run for 2 to 3 months is the best solution. What is the public interest that I am harming by running my plant on an experimental basis under Your Lordships' scrutiny?", he contended.

"The first argument for closure was that the groundwater analysis report has not been furnished! The second ground was that I have put slag along the banks of the river and that of a barrier to obstruct the flow of the river. The barrier has been in place for ages. Also, the slag was put by somebody else who has permission from the High Court to further sell it. It is only on the reopening of the plant can it be said if I am stopping the flow of the river or not...The further allegations are in connection with the National Ambient Air Quality (NAAQ) and Air Quality Index (AQI). Let me operate for two months and see if I meet the standards?", argued Dr. Singhvi.

"There is no finding of the High Court that I have caused pollution. I have been shut for 30 months. Can this country afford to shut up a plant that accounts for 36% of its production, with this kind of employment, especially when it seeks to run and be tested by the Supreme Court of this country? I am not a charitable institution, I am also of course looking at my own interest!", pressed Dr. Singhvi.

Senior Advocates K. V. Vishwanath and C. S. Vaidyanathan for the state of Tamil Nadu and and State Pollution Control Board countered this submission- "The order of closure of the government was challenged in the High Court and it was upheld. The industry has been polluting consistently and throughout. The situation has in fact worsened after Your Lordships had allowed it to operate in 2013. They had said that they will remedy but they did not do anything of the sort. The expectations have not been met. It is my prayer that until the findings are set aside, Your Lordships do not allow them to operate"

"Even in 2013, when Your Lordships had allowed the plant to re-open, it was because Your Lordships had opined that it is a different thing for the High Court to close and a different thing for the regulator to close it. You had stated that we are reopening it but the regulator can come to its own conclusions!", it was urged.

"The wealth of the country is being destroyed! Drinking water is being contaminated! People are suffering from cancer and other serious diseases! The health status of hundreds of villagers has been brought on record as to how they have suffered on account of this plant! The plant is a chronic defaulter! They have no regard for the law! When it rains, the slag seeps into the river, thousands of people have been affected by the slag! It is a red industry plant, it can never be allowed to operate in a residential zone even if they tinker around with it to make some changes!", it was pressed.

"We have never applied for an experimental run of 2 or 4 or 6 weeks either before the High Court or before this court. Even if we are causing pollution, then why are Mr. Vishwanath and Mr. Vaidyanathan worried about us reopening for four weeks. This is the best way to prove or disprove the allegation! Also, there are 113 such red industries and 26 others for power sites, none of which have been closed. Red industry is only a categorisation; it is not a closure order", submitted Dr. Singhvi.

Ultimately, the bench ruled that the relief cannot be granted and dismissed the plea.

Background

The Madras High Court had on 18.8.2020 dismissed a batch of writ petitions filed by Vedanta Limited, against the closure of its Sterlite Copper Plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, and other consequential orders passed by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.

The Division Bench comprising Justices TS Sivagnanam and V. Bhavani Subbaroyan junked the Company's plea for reopening of its plant-based on the submissions that Petitioner is a "chronic polluter" and that there had been several complaints against operation of its plant, over the years.

In April 2018, the State Pollution Control Board had declined to renew the plant's Consent to Operate certificate for failing to adhere to the prescribed conditions.

On May 22, police resorted to firing to disperse a group of protestors gathered against the renewal of the plant's certificates, which proved fatal. Subsequently, the Forests and Environment Department of the state government on May 28 directed the permanent closure of the plant.

The company had argued that closure of its plant was a "knee-jerk reaction" to the fatal-firing incident, which killed 13 protestors.

In December 2018, the NGT had permitted reopening of the plant which was set aside by the Supreme Court in February 2019, holding that the NGT did not have jurisdiction in the matter, especially when an appeal was already pending before the appellate authority.

Accordingly, Vendata had approached the Madras HC, seeking permission to re-open its plant.

It was contended before the High Court that the National Air Quality Index of Thoothukudi indicated that the region around the plant was "safer than Chennai" and that the plant had been closed only to appease the protestors. It was further argued that the reopening of its plant was highly supported by downstream industries and the local population.

The High Court however rejected these submissions, based on a compilation filed by the State Pollution Control Board, adjudging the credibility of the petitioner and its commitment towards the environment.

The authorities had highlighted that the company was a "chronic polluter" and there were several complaints lodged against it, not only by the public, but also political parties, Members of the Legislative Assembly.

The Court noted that Thoothukudi is the only District in Tamil Nadu that finds place in the 2019 list of most polluted cities in the country, as per a report of the Government of India, prepared under the National Clean Air Programme.


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