In a major setback to the Vedanta Group, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on Friday stayed the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT’s) December 15 order that had permitted it to reopen its copper smelting plant in Tuticorin.
A bench comprising Justice KK Sasidharan and Justice PD Audikesavalu ordered status quo to continue, thereby restraining Vedanta from reopening its copper smelter plant at State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu Limited (SIPCOT), Industrial Complex, Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, which was closed down by the government with Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) on May 28.
The permanent sealing of the plant was ordered after wide-spread protests by locals against the proposed expansion of the plant and the health hazards. The protests had taken over the national stage especially after thirteen protestors were killed by police firing on May 22.
The order passed by the NGT on December 15 had, however, directed the TNPCB to pass fresh order of renewal of consent and authorization to handle hazardous substances, in the light of its findings.
The Tribunal had further clarified that its order will be subject to Vedanta complying with its directions on “precautionary principle” in the larger interest of safeguarding the environment.
A PIL has now been filed by Tuticorin resident and environmentalist, Fatima, who submits that her application before the NGT was disposed of without giving her an opportunity to make her submissions in the case concerning the copper plant.
Finding merit in her assertions, the court on Friday noted that the NGT order dated December 15 prima facie did not take up Fatima’s application, while disposing of the matter. It observed,
“…the order dated 15 December 2018 indicates that the hearing concluded on 10 December 2018 and the order was uploaded on 15 December 2018. The petitioner is, therefore, prima facie correct in her contention that on account of uploading the order on 15 December 2018, without pronouncing in open court, she was denied of an opportunity to make a mention before the Tribunal that there was no adjudication of her Miscellaneous Application for impleading.”
The court was further informed that it is not yet clear whether an appeal would be filed by the State Government before the Supreme Court challenging the impugned order.
Noting that the State can file an appeal on or before March 14, 2019, it observed, “There is no dispute that Section 22 of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, provides for filing an appeal against the order passed by the Tribunal before the Hon’ble Supreme Court. The Miscellaneous Application filed by the petitioner has already been disposed of by the Tribunal without passing any order on merits. The legality and correctness of the order in the Miscellaneous Application is amenable for judicial review under Articles 225 of the 227 of the Constitution of India, more so, on account of the fact that there was no adjudication of the said application on merits and supported by reason.”
The State and the TNPCB were, therefore, directed to inform the court as to whether a decision has been taken to file such appeal before the Supreme Court.
The petitioner then expressed her apprehension that Vedanta might, in the meantime, take coercive action to enforce the order passed by the NGT. Status quo was therefore issued.
Further, notice was issued to the respondents, returnable by January 21, 2019, which is the next date of hearing.