Months after Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper Smelter plant appealed to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB)’s decision to seal the plant, an Expert Committee appointed to probe into the matter has submitted its final report. While the next hearing was slotted for December 10, sources tell TNM that affected parties have requested for an earlier date and are likely to receive one this week.
Reports suggest that the committee's observations along with supporting documents constitute over 40 bundles. Both Sterlite and anti-Sterlite counsels are looking to receive copies of the report to study and interpret.
What has happened till now?
Days after 13 civilians lost their lives as Tamil Nadu police opened fire at them for marching in protest against Sterlite plant, the TNPCB ordered for the closure of the plant on May 28.
Vedanta, aggrieved by the decision of the Tamil Nadu government to shut down the plant approached the NGT to resolve the matter and issue a stay against the order of the state government. On July 5, the NGT refused to grant any stay on Tamil Nadu government’s order. Vedanta within a month approached the NGT again, this time requesting it to permit to carry out administrative work inside the premises. It argued that due to the closure, it had not filed GST returns and had not paid salaries to the employees. Accepting the submissions of Vedanta, NGT permitted it to carry out administrative work from within the factory premises with strict orders to not venture into the production area.
In August, NGT formed a three-member committee headed by retired Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana, SJ Vazifdar, to probe into the case. Within a few days of appointment, SJ Vazifdar recused himself from the case, resulting in the NGT appointing Tarun Agrawal, the former Chief Justice of Meghalaya High Court to lead the expert committee. The other members in the committee were scientists Satish C Garkoti and H D Varalaxmi.
In September, the expert committee visited the Thoothukudi plant and conducted observations. The committee also held public consultation in Thoothukudi to gather inputs about the people’s take on the status of the plant. In that meeting on September 23, around 45,000 letters were submitted to the committee by the pro-Sterlite groups in support of reopening the plant. The panel also listened to the arguments put forth by Sterlite in favour of reopening the plant.
On October 5, the committee held a hearing in Chennai in which more than 3 lakh letters against the reopening of the plant were submitted to the panel. Of the 3 lakh representations, 1.7 lakh came from the anti-Sterlite People’s movement, TTV Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) presented 1 lakh petitions and Seeman’s Naam Thamizhar Katchi submitted around 1.3 lakh petitions to the panel. On the hearing that day, arguments were made in favour of keeping the plant shut. The representatives submitted that the operation of the plant led to water contamination over the years and that Sterlite was responsible for disposal of toxic arsenic waste illegally. The NGT extended the time period for the expert committee to submit its report by one month on October 15.
On October 29, a hearing with Vedanta and TNPCB took place in Kalas Mahal where Sterlite opposed TNPCB’s claim about air quality. TNPCB had claimed that since the shutdown of the plant in May, the air quality in and around the plant had improved. This claim was contested by Vedanta which argued that the methodology adopted by TNPCB to arrive at the conclusion was flawed.
SC dismisses TN Govt's petition
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a review petition filed by the Tamil Nadu Government over the NGT's decision to allow Vedanta Ltd to challenge the state government's closure order to the Sterlite Copper plant. It also questioned allowing Sterlite employees to access their administrative block.
The apex court observed that there was no error in judgement warranting reconsideration of the order impugned and dismissed the review petition.